The old theatrical adage that “dying is easy — comedy is hard” is doubly true when it comes to ballet.
Ballet is a physical art form, and physical comedy is most often created by performers willing to execute all kinds of off-balance, out-of-kilter, potentially dangerous moves in order to elicit a laugh.
John Cranko’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” which Tulsa Ballet opened Friday at the Tulsa PAC, is full of those moments when dancers seem to be teetering on the edge of disaster to the point the audience finds itself holding its collective breath, until the maneuver is successfully completed, and gasps become gales of laughter.
This is the second time Tulsa Ballet has staged Cranko’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedic take on the battle of the sexes — the first production, in 2011, coincided with the worst snowstorms in Tulsa’s history.
Fortunately, there are no meteorologic catastrophes in the offing for this weekend. So if you are in the mood for, or in the need of, an evening full of comedy presented by a troupe of dancers and musicians performing at the peak of their powers, then you have to see “The Taming of the Shrew.”
One of choreographer John Cranko’s many talents was his ability to tell a story through dance, and one of the impressive things about “The Taming of the Shrew” is how much of Shakespeare’s play is here.
Granted, things have been streamlined and simplified, and one can sense an influence of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor film version that was released two years before Cranko’s ballet debuted (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But everything that one might expect from a ballet titled “The Taming of the Shrew” is there, and then some.
And all of it is hilarious.
Madalina Stoica as the shrewish Kate handles the characterization and the choreography with equal skill. At the start, Kate seems simply a woman angry at the world, leaping and snarling and kicking at all around her, but Stoica slowly brings out the softer side of the character as the story unfolds, while still maintaining the character’s independence.
She also puts up a darn good fight, whether it be with her sister Bianca, her suitor Petruchio or the entire population of Padua.
This is Tulsa’s first time to see senior soloist Arman Zazyan in action, and he makes an extraordinary Petruchio. Zazyan comes to Tulsa from the Stuttgart Ballet, where Cranko was artistic director, and while he has been part of productions of “The Taming of the Shrew,” this is his first time to dance this role, and he goes at with everything he has.
He brings a cocksure attitude to every move, whether he’s been stripped to his smalls by thieving barmaids, showing up drunk at his own wedding, or putting his plan for taming Kate into action. His entrance during the wedding scene is thrilling mix of swagger and stagger, as Zazyan nimbly executes a series of “drunken” moves that are hilarious and scarifying all at once.
He’s equally assured in the moments of pure dance, such as the long, complex pas de deux with Stoica in the second act, full of emotional nuance and gravity-defying lifts.
Principal dancers Youhee Son and Hyonjun Rhee as Bianca and Lucentio are exquisite in the courtship pas de deux; individually, Son in her opening solo reveals that Bianca is not quite the innocent she may appear to be in public, but is almost as manipulative and aware as Petruchio, while Rhee appears to be having a gleeful time engaging in the pratfall-filled comedy of his work with fellow suitors Rodrigo Hermesmeyer as Gremio, the singing master with the slide-whistle voice, and Cavan Conley as the dandy Hortensio.
While the main emphasis is on the leading players, Cranko’s choreography is equally dense and challenging for the ensemble, which is often in perpetual motion when on, their acrobatic dancing creating a visual sense of the rhythm and poetry of Shakespeare’s language. The company performs it very well, and even is given a few comedic moments of its own, such as the wedding scene in Act One that culminates in a wonderful sight gag.
Peter Stafford Wilson conducted the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, which played this score assembled from the music of Scarlatti with great energy, expressiveness and a richly layered sound, one in which the listener would hear all the individual elements coming together to create the musical whole. From the first note of the overture, this was one of the orchestra’s most satisfying ballet performances — music worthy of the gorgeously difficult and extremely funny dancing being done on stage.
“The Taming of the Shrew” continues with performances at 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at the Tulsa PAC, 101 E. Third St. For tickets: 918-596-7111, myticketoffice.com.
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478