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Two ballet dancers performing, in black and white with dark background

Professor David Fuller, from our Department of English Studies, discusses his passions for music, ballet and Shakespeare. His latest research explores how ballet can provide new insights into The Bard’s work.

Q. Professor Fuller, tell us about your interest in Shakespeare and ballet.

A. I love ballet: it’s a form of performance quite unlike others. It does not have a stable text or script, and though there are systems of notation they cannot capture everything that happens with the body’s movement on stage. Also, dancers bring their own unique movement training and individual character to the movement invented by the dance-maker, the choreographer.

Ballet has a distinct intensity and stylization that aligns with Shakespeare’s work, which is stylized in its dramatic forms, in the rhythms of its verse, and the structures of its prose.

I think ballet provides a wonderful lens through which to view Shakespeare, and yet it is largely ignored by scholars when discussing adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. This is perhaps because they think of ballet in terms of the best-known popular works, such as The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, and don’t understand that modern and contemporary ballet is much more various than those great classic works might suggest. Contemporary ballet is a major form of experimental theatre.

Shakespeare wrote his works for performance, and all forms of performance can help us think about his work afresh. Also, I have for a long time experimented with taking a more creative approach to understanding the arts and writing literary criticism, and with this subject you have to invent – taking account of dance, drama, literary text and music all together.

Q. How will your latest research address this?

A. My fundamental aim is to make dance studies more available in a literary-critical context. I hope to combat dance being a closed book to so many who are interested in studying theatre. I want to show what ballet, as a form of adaptation, can tell us about Shakespeare’s work – and especially what it reveals about contemporary themes of gender, race, and sexuality, with all of which Shakespeare was experimental.

I am doing this by studying ballet adaptations of Shakespeare’s work from the mid-twentieth century to the present, comparing different versions of the same works to see what they reveal. The oldest ballet that I will be studying is about 80 years old. This is the earliest with which it is possible to get detailed evidence of what the choreography was.

For each, I look at how adaptations differ and the different emphases the choreographies bring out. For example, Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular Shakespeare plays for ballet. I look at two different versions – one a 1940s Soviet version, the other a 1960s British version. One emphasises the social side of the play, the family feud, while the other focuses on the lovers, portraying this as a love tragedy, rather than a social tragedy.

Q. How do the themes of race, gender and sexuality come through in Shakespeare’s works?

A. Shakespeare’s works, and their performance, are diverse. They include people of colour and deal with subjects of gender and sexuality.

Shakespeare wrote poems as well as plays, and his Sonnets were mostly addressed to a ‘lovely boy’. So these have issues of gender and sexuality as part of their subject.

In terms of performance, women were not allowed to act on the Elizabethan stage, so female parts were played by boys. Shakespeare also included characters where gender was a complicating factor, such as Viola in Twelfth Night – a female character (played by a boy), who disguises herself as a boy and, in her disguise, with its potentially fluid boy-girl gender, becomes a love object for a male and a female character.

How this kind of complication is presented in adaptations of Shakespeare’s work is fascinating. Ballet can often be a site for exploring this. The culture of ballet – so concerned with the expressivity of the body – can focus on issues of this kind with a special intensity.

So race, gender and sexuality can be both part of the play and can be explored and revealed as part of the performance.

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