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Soo Youn Cho & Alfonso Martin in Tulsa Ballet's production of John Cranko's "Taming of the Shrew." Photo copyright Julie Shelton and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Copyright 2011 Alicia Chesser

TULSA -- Classic tutu ballets like "Swan Lake" and "The Sleeping Beauty" are often thought of as the ultimate yardstick for measuring the maturity of a company. But other kinds of ballets can measure qualities every bit as important as the technical prowess the classics put to the test. John Cranko's 1969 "The Taming of the Shrew," which Tulsa Ballet performed last month at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, is one of those other kinds, a work that tests skills such as theatrical range, character acting, and the ability to sustain narrative continuity. 'Shrew' has more in common with the Ballets Russes classics TB performed regularly in its early decades than with the 'white' ballets in the classical canon. In a ballet like Ronald Hynd's "The Merry Widow" (which, incidentally, TB is bringing back next season), it certainly matters whether steps are done correctly, but it matters more that the dancers make the audience able to see the story and get behind the characters. 'Shrew' is like that, which made it refreshingly different after the high-toned technical seriousness of TB's last two programs, which included "Swan Lake," a fine rendition of George Balanchine's "Theme and Variations," and a mesmerizing performance of James Kudelka's haunting "There, Below."

While mid-20th-century story ballets by the likes of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth Macmillan live comfortably in the repertoires of European companies, they are rarely seen in the U.S. As Alastair Macaulay recently observed in the New York Times, the story ballet is undergoing a renaissance. Choreographers Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon are digging into the genre in New York and London. The ballerina Gelsey Kirkland has established a new ballet academy with the express purpose of fostering character development, in the belief that "the future of ballet lies in the art of dramatic storytelling." The influence extends to the most forward-thinking ballet company in the midwest: TB has commissioned Edwaard Liang to create a new "Romeo and Juliet" in 2012. 'Shrew' is a terrific reminder that there's more that can draw in an audience than tutus and Prince Charmings.

That an audience was drawn into the Tulsa Performing Arts Center for this show at all was a minor miracle, given that four days before opening night, a history-making blizzard struck the woefully unprepared city with 17 inches of snow in about 12 hours. The stage crew of the PAC, stranded at the theater, had to camp out at a hotel within walking distance. Teams of 4-wheel-drive car owning Tulsa Ballet supporters and staff somehow managed to get the dancers and orchestra members to and from the theater for their final rehearsals. By opening night, streets had begun to clear, but driving conditions were still so treacherous that only a few hundred people could make it to the performance. By the third show (the one I attended, on February 6), however, the situation had improved enough that the theater was packed with a tremendously excited crowd. The positive spirit and against-all-odds dedication the company demonstrated were an inspiration to the whole city. As local critic James Watts observed, while the monster truck show scheduled for that weekend was canceled, at the ballet the show went on.

The hard-working artists and crew had an enthusiastic audience waiting for them, and they gave a performance worthy of the ovation it received. We have seen how TB artistic director Marcello Angelini and his ballet mistresses Daniela Buson and Susan Frei take naturally talented dancers and mold them into danseurs and ballerinas. (Principal dancers Alfonso Martin and Wang Yi are exemplary cases, as is Karina Gonzalez, now a soloist with Houston Ballet.) Angelini's latest work in progress, Soo Youn Cho, performed an admirable Odette/Odile in the company's "Swan Lake" last fall, and her work in the subsequent mixed bill was solid. Cho is an elegant dancer, cool and composed -- the very opposite of Cranko's fiery, bawdy Kate. But she more than pulled it off, shooting onstage with a jutting jaw and arms akimbo, ready to elbow any fool who got too close.

Alexandra Christian (in blue), Alexandra Bergman (in yellow), Alfonso Martin, and Nathan McGinnis in Tulsa Ballet's production of John Cranko's "Taming of the Shrew." Photo copyright Julie Shelton and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

And fools there were in abundance -- from Michael Galloway's Priest, feeble as a 100-year-old mouse, to Wilson Lema's blustering Baptista, to the blowsy prostitutes Alexandra Bergman and a deliciously Lucille-Ball-esque Alexandra Christian, to Bianca's suitors Hortensio (a swaggering Ma Cong, in love with his lute) and Gremio (Alberto Montesso). In a ballet brimming with wit, it was Montesso who got the audience laughing till they cried. His Gremio was an insanely deadpan, hilariously grouchy and petulant gentleman whose entire personality could be summed up in the lunatic way he stabbed the floor with his heels with every pinched little step. Each of the suitors (Claudio Cocino's pert and graceful Lucentio being the winning one) presented himself to Bianca (Hanae Seki) in a sort of talent competition; when it was Gremio's turn, his intensely serious efforts to declaim his serenade were thwarted by the loopy, yawping pennywhistle from the orchestra pit that represented his voice. His handkerchief fluttered constantly in peevish frustration, his upper body was as rigid as his stiff white wig, his hands flew up repeatedly in hopeless disbelief. It was the most complete, fully sustained creation of a character I have seen at TB in a very long time.

The charm of this production in general lay in the dancers' ability to find the character beneath the caricature. Seki's Bianca was genuinely sweet (not a goody-goody sap as she could have been), and her dancing in the several difficult pas de deux with Cocino was vivacious and full of happiness. In Martin's hands, Petruchio -- certainly among the most fun parts to dance in all of ballet -- was complex and assured, even in his drunken wounded pride when stripped of his clothes by Bergman and Christian. Martin is a dancer who never showboats his immensely powerful technique, but is happy to let himself be part of the whole stage picture; his aspect is casual and cool in even the most challenging choreography. (I can't wait to see him interpret Mikhail Baryshnikov's role in Twyla Tharp's "Push Comes to Shove," which TB will perform for the first time at the end of March.) That persona made him a very effective Petruchio, whose determination to "tame" Kate comes initially from his need to escape from a tough spot, but develops into a genuine respect for her as a "diamond in the rough." Even Martin's roughest tumbles with Cho were gentle and smiling in spirit.

And rough tumbles there were in spades, as ego fought with ego for control of the story's out-of-control situation. Martin and Cho had solid continuity through their episodes together, episodes that could easily appear as just one pratfall after another. In this ballet, Cho was the most visible she has ever been on stage, able to let feeling come all the way out through her fingers and cheekbones and eyes. Her aspect came to life here, as her body came to life in last autumn's "Swan Lake." The duet between Kate and Petruchio in Petruchio's home is at the heart of this ballet. It's the moment when they wrestle (literally) with whether there will be a real relationship between them or not. I could see Cho tilting from stubbornness to openness, and back again. What I really wanted to see was all the little moments of doubt, effort, and transformation in between; that may not quite be where Cho is as an actress today, but that is where she's going.

Across the board -- and this may sound odd in a ballet so full of "larger than life" characters -- the dancing could have been bigger, riskier, and less safely played, particularly in the second act where the lush, rustling costumes really needed stronger movement to fill them out. There is a great deal of choreography in this ballet, strong and interesting choreography at that (not just moving around waiting for the next pantomime); it is a real dance drama, not a melodrama. It was a bustling scene on stage all evening long, though, with a lively corps cascading through archways and over parapets and, at the conclusion of Act One, tumbling down in a wave as Petruchio gives them a push and runs away with Kate.

More than a few balletgoers are already clamoring for this ballet's return to the TB stage. Aesthetic exhaustion can happen at both ends of the repertoire, with fairy-tale classics as well as with modern abstraction. 'Shrew' was a tonic for this audience, a welcome bit of fun for the company, and a cheering confirmation that there's a whole story-ballet genre out there to discover, explore, and make new. More, please.

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