Local Arts

‘Unsex Me Here’: What happens when you look at gender, via Shakespeare, through ballet

Biology and psychology. Gender-bending and mind-bending. Innocent love and violent love and sparring love and interspecies love and anxiety so paralyzing it saps a philosopher’s will.

That’s what you’ll get when Charlotte Ballet unveils a new approach to Innovative Works this month.

In the old model, many choreographers — most of them already associated with the company — designed short pieces that filled up winter programs at McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance. This time, artistic director Hope Muir has paired two out-of-town dancemakers with two UNC Charlotte professors to create “Shakespeare Reinvented,” which runs Jan. 25-Feb. 16.

Muir mounted her first heavyweight collaboration last season, teaming with the Charlotte Symphony to present a gentler “Rite of Spring” that used dancers from Charlotte Ballet II, Charlotte Ballet’s apprentice program and young Reach trainees from three local recreation centers.

This time, she’s turned dancers from the first company over to Las Vegas-based Peter Chu (who choreographed “Rite”) and Chicago-based Stephanie Martinez, who makes her CB debut. She linked Chu with Andrew Hartley, UNCC’s Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare Studies, and matched Martinez with Lynne Conner, chair of the Department of Theatre.

Choreographer Stephanie Martinez (in glasses) and dance historian and collaborator Dr. Lynne Conner direct Charlotte Ballet dancers in blocking before a rehearsal. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

The rules? Each pair had to fill roughly 45 minutes, and Shakespeare’s plays had to provide the impetus for the ballets.

Hartley and Chu went deep inside Hamlet’s head in “Let Be,” which takes its title from his famous soliloquy about suicide and the afterlife. Conner and Martinez played with four sets of body images and gender roles in “Unsex Me Here,” which takes its name from Lady Macbeth’s request that powerful spirits fill her “from the crown to the toe, top-full/Of direst cruelty.”

Hartley and Chu wanted to track Hamlet’s journey from a man whose fear of death prevents him from fully living to one who enters a state of calm reflection and acceptance of his future.

Says Hartley, “Peter and I come from very different backgrounds and disciplines, but we sought to build commonality … through the overlap between elements of traditional Chinese medicine and notions of the body (and the Greek physician Galen’s) notions of physical and mental health, which informed Shakespeare. We wanted to explore depression — analogous to what Shakespeare called ‘melancholy’ – in physical terms.”

Peter Mazurowski and Karlee Vadalabene-Donley. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

Conner and Martinez opted for more diversity, pairing four couples from “Romeo and Juliet” (the title characters), “Macbeth” (the lady and her spouse), “The Taming of the Shrew” (Kate and Petruchio, seen at the early moment when they meet as equals) and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where fairy queen Titania becomes enamored of part-man, part-donkey Bottom because of a potent spell.

“Collaboration takes a lot of trust,” says Martinez. “You have to set your ego aside and be willing to learn. And continue to learn. And enjoy learning.

“Prep work as a choreographer is usually lonely. The conceptualizing and creation take place in my head until the day I’m in a room with 20 dancers saying, ‘Tell us what to do.’ But this process was very different.”

It began, says Conner, when Charlotte Ballet board member Ken Lambla (founding dean of UNCC’s College of Arts + Architecture) asked Muir to consider a cooperative project with the school. Conner and Martinez started to brainstorm nearly a year ago in a relationship that was a first for both.

Sarah Hayes Harkins and Ben Ingel. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

Conner has written plays: “The Mother” is now a semifinalist in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center National Playwright’s Conference contest. She’s also written dance criticism and directed for the stage. Martinez danced for 30 years and has made dances for 10. Yet the artistic countries they’ve inhabited didn’t quite have a common language.

So Conner broke down plots and characters of the four plays for Martinez before anyone entered a studio. Conner agreed to be a director, making sure dancers conveyed honest and readable emotions with faces and body language. She helped Martinez find an arc for her 45-minute narrative. But as Martinez says, “This can’t just be a play where people move around more.” Her steps had to give new life to old archetypes.

Even three weeks before opening, a kind of happy uncertainty hung over their project. Conner said in her interview that Judi Dench would read Lady Macbeth’s monologue to set the scene for audiences, then walked into the rehearsal room to find out this voiceover had been cut. Their give-and-take in rehearsal went like this:

Martinez: “I want you to watch this section with the women.”

Conner: “What do you want me to look for?”

Martinez, shrugging: “Just see … what you see.”

Conner, 90 seconds later: “I think there’s a real fine-tuning of the comedy moment there. It happens, but it’s shorter.”

Martinez: “Eight counts less?”

Conner: “Let’s see that …. Yes, that’s funnier.”

Their piece moves from conventional moments, which present characters as fans of Shakespeare will quickly recognize them, to unconventional ones. Lady Macbeth’s plea to be unsexed – that is, to have her feminine aspects nullified, so she can behave like a male warrior – kicks off a series of new behaviors, as humor and serious commentary intertwine.

Sarah Hayes Harkins (from left), Alessandra James, Karlee Vadalabene-Donley and Amelia Sturt-Dilley at work. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre used no actresses, because Elizabethan-era conventions forbade women to appear onstage. (Remember the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love”?) The notion that men had to play women 400 years ago inspired Martinez and Conner to play around with male-female behavior and jolt the audience out of its expectations.

“In my ballets, women can’t lose their power,” says Martinez. “They’re not victims, and they’re not subservient. They see themselves differently from the way men in the plays see them. We’re depicting what they might want their lives to be.”

Says Conner, “Gender’s a big topic now. Maybe we’re coming to the idea that gender-binary behavior isn’t the way nature has designed us.”

Both say Muir gave them free rein. Martinez calls her “a wonderful curator. She comes in and shares opinions – which are usually spot-on – but lets us play things out. She doesn’t stifle us.”

And in the end, the duo came up with more rules for themselves.

Conner, whose plays “tend to be tough and full of ideas,” aimed to help Martinez express complicated concepts directly, so Innovative Works audiences “wouldn’t leave thinking, ‘Well, I didn’t understand that.’ “

And Martinez, creating the longest work of her choreography career, determined to “say what I needed to say and be done. I always try to put myself in the viewer’s seat and ask, ‘Would I like to watch this or not?’ I would.”

Innovative Works

WHEN: Jan. 25-Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Also 2 p.m. Feb. 2, 9 and 16.

WHERE: McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance, 701 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $25-$65. Tickets include a dessert reception with dancers and artistic staff after the show.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or charlotteballet.org.