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Apr. 25—Since Michael Lang became Toledo Ballet's resident director and choreographer in 2007, he's created 11 full-length original productions. Some have been his take on such classic stories as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, while others — like 2010's Press One for More Options, about the isolation engendered by modern communications technology — explored more contemporary themes.
Up until now, though, there was one giant of theater he hadn't touched: Shakespeare.
"I think the interesting thing about Shakespeare is, what do you do with Shakespeare that someone else hasn't already done?" Lang said. About 18 months ago, he came upon his answer: "Shakespeare before Shakespeare was Shakespeare."
His idea eventually developed into Moving Soliloquies, a dance series premiering at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle at 7 p.m. Sunday. It's available to livestream at stream.artstoledo.com.
The series follows the young Shakespeare as figments of his imagination in the form of Puck, Romeo, Iago and Ariel feed him the ideas that will eventually form his completed works.
"We're watching Shakespeare become Shakespeare," said Lang. From Puck the mysterious to Romeo the romantic, these characters are all "voices in his head" that represent the different psychological sides that eventually inspire his plays. Iago, for instance, symbolizes the dark and sinister impulses that will eventually manifest in tragedies like Macbeth and Othello.
The performance is structured according to Shakespeare's iconic speech, "All the world's a stage," given by Jaques in the comedy As You Like It. Seven dancers will represent Jaques' seven stages of life: Infancy, The Schoolboy, The Lover, The Soldier, Justice, Old Age, and Oblivion. The performances will be set to the chamber music of Beethoven, Ravel, Shostakovich, Grieg, and others, all performed live by Toledo Symphony musicians.
Lang doesn't attempt to adhere to any sort of rigorous historical chronology, preferring the freedom of his imagination. He gave the dancers deliberately eclectic costuming so as to prevent audiences from dating them to an exact time period, thus demonstrating that contexts change but human nature is constant. The composition as a whole interlaces the historical with the abstract so as to convey the timeless universality of Shakespeare's themes.
Ariel, from The Tempest, is "the liaison between two worlds, the literal Renaissance world that Shakespeare comes from and then just the reality of life itself," Lang said.
The imaginative framing of Moving Soliloquies allows for the fluid and occasionally surreal intermingling of the literal and the symbolic. The character of The Lover, for instance, begins as a teenager made giddy by a letter from Romeo before eventually transforming into the idea of love itself, appearing whenever the emotion is invoked.
"What we come to is the idea that Shakespeare has a version that he portrays of this journey of life, but that's one person's interpretation of it, and we all have this interpretation of what this journey of life is," said Lang. Our selves "are constantly regenerating and dying," as "death isn't an ending, it's just a transformation into something else." To capture that theme visually, Lang has the dancers representing love and death wear differently-colored but stylistically similar costumes — literal shades of the same process.
A key theme of Jacques' speech that the show aims to capture, Lang said, is that theater is representative of life itself. Even though we all have "real jobs and families and everything else," we're all ultimately performers that "wear different masks depending on what we need to portray" in life.
"It's interesting how a show that started before COVID became all about the masks we wear," said Lang. "Its just apropos, I think, that we're in this world now where we're all wearing masks, literally."
As for rehearsing in masks and during a pandemic, "I kind of equate it to living in New York City: It's obviously possible, but everything is just a little harder." Besides, Lang added, ballet dancers are tough by nature — "they're the rip-your-toenails-off-and-go-back-out-there people."
The cast is mostly composed of sophomore and junior high school students but ranges from the age of 10 to 53. Since "in Shakespeare's time it was all boys playing young females, we decided to do the opposite," said Lang. The only male performer is the actor playing Puck, the youngest in the cast, for whom an exception was made because he was "just very suited for the role."
Lang has historically favored "contemporary theater," and said it provides young performers with a "good education" because "you have to be flexible and stylistically versatile these days." His take on Shakespeare remains true to that aesthetic preference.
"I think we need to honor the work of the past, but I also think the creators of the past would want us to keep moving art forward," Lang said. "I don't think we can just rest on the laurels of the past, we have to keep pushing our own ideas forward as well."
First Published April 25, 2021, 7:30am