Houston Ballet Gets Theatrical with Taming of the Shrew

Melody Mennite & Connor Walsh in The Taming of the Shrew
Melody Mennite & Connor Walsh in The Taming of the Shrew
Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Pretty much everyone knows at least a line or two from Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew, if not by studying the actual play, then by virtue of pop culture: the lovelorn Lucentio's line "I pine, I burn, I perish" was uttered by the character's modern-day counterpart in '90s teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You, and Petruchio's bombastic "Kiss Me, Kate" served as the title for a musical about the antics of an on-again, off-again couple cast in the play's leading roles.

With Shakespeare's words so indelible in our collective minds, how can dance communicate such decidedly dialogue-based comedy without the one-liners?

"As far as theatricality in dance goes, comedy's the hardest thing to pull off," says Melody Mennite, the Houston Ballet principal who will dance the part of the tempestuous Kate in the company's production of The Taming of the Shrew, which opens Thursday. "It's all about timing, and it's all about actually not trying to be funny."

The story follows the tempestuous courtship and marriage of the Kate by the wily Petruchio, who sets out to "tame" her.

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The choreography is taken from the original 1969 staging by John Cranko, who was known for combining dance with a love for acting. It's a more theatrical, story-heavy style that Mennite has had some experience with, having danced as both Tatiana and Olga in previous productions of Cranko's Onegin.

"That's the thing Cranko had a real talent for, was being able to transfer that dialogue into movement," she tells Art Attack. "Not necessarily pantomime, but you can tell the story through body language. When you see a play, you can see body language, even if you're not seeing movement."

Just in case, audience members will be given a synopsis, but Mennite says the ballet itself should be enough.

"I like to go into it thinking there are a lot of people who got there late and didn't have a chance to read it," she says. "I'd still like them to get as much out of it as the people who did."

Mennite says developing the character of Kate has been a challenge: trying to play mean without playing bitchy as well as trying to convey the changes in Kate's personality as she's "tamed."

"She's got this wild toughness about her, and in the way you move, you don't want to be too soft and lyrical, that's not part of what she is right away," Mennite says. "She gets to soften in the ballet, but in the beginning, she's rigid."

To help her prepare for the role, Mennite says she's watched video footage of the original 1969 production, in which Marcia Haydée danced the lead role.

"Out of any video I could watch and any visual I could get, she's the one who heard and saw first-hand how Cranko wanted her to communicate this character. I'm sure she was part of that creative process too, but she goes back to the original source of how this was all going to go down."

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on June 9, 11, 17 and 18 and at 2 p.m. on June 12, 18 and 19 at the Brown Theater in the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. Tickets start at $18. Call (713) 227 ARTS or visit www.houstonballet.org for more information.

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