Charlotte Ballet collaborated with UNC Charlotte Professors of Theatre Dr. Lynne Conner and Dr. Andrew Hartley to present “Innovative Works: Shakespeare Reinvented” Jan. 25 through Feb. 16 at the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance. Each professor was paired with a choreographer by Artistic Director Hope Muir to explore the works of Shakespeare through a new dance creation. Conner was paired with Chicago-native, contemporary ballet choreographer Stephanie Martinez, and Hartley was paired with Bronx-native, contemporary choreographer Peter Chu. Martinez and Conner explored the roles of women and gender issues in their piece entitled “Unsex Me Here” (a title referencing one of Lady Macbeth’s lines in “Macbeth”). Chu and Hartley used “Hamlet” to explore questions of mental health and mortality through Hamlet’s journey as a character in their piece entitled “Let Be.”
I recently sat down with both Conner and Hartley to discuss their experiences from this collaboration. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
What were your roles in this process?
Dr. Conner: We had very different roles.
Dr. Hartley: Yeah, we had very different roles. Actually my role ended up being very different from what I thought it was going to be. Initially, I didn’t even know I was going to be dramaturging the project; I thought that I was going to act as more of a consultant. I didn’t know that I was going to be assigned to a particular piece. That was something that materialized later. But in most theatre organizations, being a dramaturge on a Shakespeare production, it’s still more of a consultancy thing.
Dr. Conner: It depends, I mean there is production dramaturgy and then there is the more sort of traditional background dramaturgy…
Dr. Hartley: Yes, a lot of companies still do that. I mean, when I dramaturge a Shakespeare production I’m in rehearsal all the time, but that’s still reasonably uncommon. And so for this, particularly because we didn’t know really what it was going to be — it was growing out of Shakespeare rather than being a representation of Shakespeare — initially I thought “well I’ll be consulting with the director and then that will be it.” But once I was assigned to what would become ”Let Be,” it became a very different thing. I was in rehearsal all the time. And when Peter first came in it was still very much up in the air–
Dr. Conner: And he’s talking about in January — so like Jan. 2 .
Dr. Hartley: Yeah. In most theater companies, you read the script and then you rehearse for a certain period of time, and then you have design elements (and that happens very early), and then you rehearse and you put it up.
Dr. Conner: But the dance world’s very different, the dance world creates in real time, especially contemporary–
Dr. Hartley: And some theater companies do as well; I mean a Shakespeare company like Cheek by Jowl rehearses for a long period of time but begins with almost nothing and they sculpt the entire thing, and all the design is being done during the rehearsal process. And that has finished up being close to what we were doing. So we moved through a number of different play options back in the summer; We talked about doing “Julius Caesar” and then we talked about doing “Macbeth” and “King Lear.” And then as Peter talked more and more about his interest in mental health issues and things like that, we gradually honed in on “Hamlet.” And then decided quite earlier that it wasn’t going to be a telling of the Hamlet story; it was going to be something that grew out of the pursuit.
Dr. Conner: A theme.
Dr. Hartley: The psychological through line, yeah.
Dr. Conner: So, similarly, when Stephanie and I started talking, which was a year ago by phone, I said, right from the start, I’m not interested in building a story ballet. The ballet tradition from the 19th century where you do “Romeo and Juliet” and they’re gonna pantomime and they’re gonna try and tell the story; I said I wasn’t interested in that, and she said she wasn’t either. So we started discussing some sort of overall notions that interested us, including women in Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s representation of women and from there we moved into a broader idea about gender. We decided that we would use four plays, and a couple from each of these plays to bounce off of and explore these ideas, and that is basically where we have stayed.
So my title is Stage Director, and I would describe it as story diviser on the concept. I have nothing to do with the choreography; I have lots to do with the performances though because I am coaching them and staging movement. So there is the formal choreography, but then there is plenty in our piece that you would describe as more “conventional” staging or blocking. And in terms of dramaturgy, I was there to identify the plays, identify the storyline, talk about the characters both to Stephanie and the dancers. Pretty normal things that a stage director does.
Dr. Hartley: One of the things that we’ve been doing in ours was we decided that we really wanted the dancers to speak, which is sort of unusual, and they were terrified. And so a lot of my job was working with text and helping them understand it, and think about rhythms and stress patterns and clarity. Then again, part of that very organic process was, was it going to be single voices, was it going to be group voices? Those present radically different challenges. So that was fun. And then Peter said, maybe in December, he’s like, “I’m really interested in fans–”
Dr. Conner: Yeah, and boy they’re a big part of the piece–
Dr. Hartley: Yes they are.
Dr. Conner: Meaning, like, oriental fans–
Dr. Hartley: Right, because he has a lot of background and interest in Chinese medicine and in martial arts, and the fan is very much used in martial arts as a defensive weapon.
Dr. Conner: Oh really?
Dr. Hartley: Yes, because the metal ridges are used to deflect against swords and such, and if you look at like Japanese prints you’ll see they’re often used in combat. They’re designed to catch the blade. So we then started working on the idea of how to utilize the fans in this martial arts context and sort of work it in with elements of the text. Originally, he was interested in staging the fight scene at the end of the play, but gradually we backed away from that and wanted to make it more metaphorical, a kind of internal struggle dealing with some of the pithier wrestlings with inner conflict and concerns about mortality and such.
What were some of the most difficult things about the process?
Dr. Hartley: I’m not a choreographer and my experience with dancers is pretty limited. So I was not initially prepared to be a voice and text coach. That kind of direction where “ok so let’s get these dancers warmed up and let them start using their voices” — that’s not really what I do most of the time. But I enjoyed it and I embraced it because I felt that everybody was a little bit out of their comfort zone — you know dancers were doing stuff that they had never done before, the choreographer had never done a piece like this before. So that seemed only fair.
Dr. Conner: I have a background as a dance historian and as a dance critic so I’ve been around a lot of dance, but I have never been in the studio making a piece with dancers before. So to me that was like of course I’m gonna do this. And if you were to ask me what the best part of this has been… Without question, hands down, it has been being able to watch these dancers all these days and to watch them thinking and moving their way through the creative process. They’re gorgeous dancers and interesting people, and I’ve just found them wonderful to be around, and I really just genuinely mean that.
Has either of you ever danced before?
Dr. Conner: I am a fabulous social dancer. I am! I’m really good. But that’s it. (Laughs) No, I did study dance because I was trained as an actor in undergraduate and where I got my degree, we had to take dance every semester. So I did, but I was not particularly good at it. Andrew?
Dr. Hartley: Psh, No. No. Not at all. So that’s why I said being out of my comfort zone, doing Tai Chi and what have you in the mornings–
Dr. Conner: But you weren’t at the barre; you were doing Peter’s warm-up.
Dr. Hartley: No, I was in the corner trying not to be conspicuous.
Dr. Conner: But it’s good though! It’s the best thing! I wouldn’t have minded doing that actually.
Dr. Hartley: But yeah, it helps to be comfortable with the idea of making fun of yourself. Then when you’re asking them to go through hoops that they’re not used to jumping through…
Dr. Conner: That’s true.
What are some of the differences between working with actors and working with dancers?
Dr. Conner: On the surface, the obvious one is that actors are trained to be comfortable with the language and said to be stiff and uncomfortable physically, or more so, depending on their tradition. It’s the inverse with dancers. The dancers were incredibly fluid and able to use their bodies in all kinds of experimental and expressive ways, and more nervous and more constricted with the language because they just don’t have the technique. We also have language in our piece. The four female characters recorded some of their lines. You hear them recorded, they’re not saying them live–
Dr. Hartley: The Macbeth monologue at the beginning, was that–?
Dr. Conner: Oh no, that’s Kate Fleetwood [a Tony-nominated British actress]–
Dr. Hartley: Ok. I was gonna say, like, wait a minute!
Dr. Conner: In any case, that’s a big journey for somebody who has no training in acting. Like I said to them a million times, the idea of a typical actor being able to do even the teeniest little bit of what they do? Forget about it!
How did you choose which texts would be incorporated?
Dr. Hartley: Initially, I just sent him lots of stuff that seemed to resonate with our phone conversations. We were talking on the phone a lot and after each call, I would send him a speech, a collection of things. We’d read stuff and we thought about breaking up, for example, the “To Be or Not To Be” speech and creating a little scene around each one of those lines, and in the end we decided to just do the entire speech. And then drawing on the other pieces’ fragments of the text elsewhere to sort of build a context for it and a sense of through line into the resolution. Again, it’s not supposed to be a telling of the story, it’s supposed to be a new thing that grows out of these words.
Dr. Conner: Yes, that’s how as artists, we all went. I mean, because I think it’s inevitable in a series called “Innovative Works” that you’re going to make a contemporary piece. Ours has some narrative components to it because we have Titania and Bottom from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Kate and Petruchio from “The Taming of the Shrew” and Romeo and Juliet and Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, but they’re not there to tell the story of the plays.
Why do you think Shakespeare makes a good foundation for new works?
Dr. Hartley: We are holding up “as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature,” as Hamlet puts it, so one of the reasons that the plays seem to be endlessly changing and developing is not necessarily about the material itself, it’s about us, because that’s why we keep coming to them. We keep finding new things — the gender stuff that you guys are working with is something nobody talked about 100 years ago. Not many people talked about it 50 years ago. So as the lens changes, suddenly the play becomes an entirely different thing.
Dr. Conner: We’re staging ourselves. There’s a famous essay called “A Seashell,” and the essential idea there is: You know how you go to the seashore and you pick up a conch shell and you listen and you say that you’re hearing the ocean. Do you know what you’re actually hearing? You’re hearing your circulatory system; you’re hearing your blood. So when we stage “Hamlet” we say we see “Hamlet,” but we just see ourselves. We’re just hearing our own circulatory system through the words of this person.
Dr. Hartley: And that’s not to say that we’re simply projecting onto a blank space. That it’s a sort of mutual reflection back and forth–
Dr. Conner: And the words are there and the characters are there and they’re real! They’re real. It’s just so very exciting! I mean there are plenty of incredibly talented artists and thinkers who are not into Shakespeare so I don’t want to make it seem that everyone feels that way. But for the people who do, it’s just an endless excitement. I don’t know how else to say it.
Dr. Hartley: That’s a good way to put it.
Dr. Conner: So who could resist, right?