William Shakespeare—two seemingly innocent names when strung together represent the bane of many high schoolers English careers. From the iambic pentameter to the early modern English syntax and word usage, Shakespeare can be just plain difficult. At the heart of this frustration rests a question that’s crossed everyone who has ever read Hamlet or Macbeth’s mind: why do we still read and perform this stuff? What makes Shakespeare so special? (And what’s with that weird doily thing around his neck in his portrait—seriously?)
As a Shakespeare aficionado, I think his true timelessness resides in his complex unraveling and brandishing of the essential mental and emotional human experience. Or, to put it in less English major speak, Shakespeare’s plays hit at the heart of essential human feeling and thought. And though Shakespeare’s writing embodies the language of an era, his plots, characters and themes resonate and relate to any time, thereby making his plays perfect for adaptation to different ages of history, cultures and, well, anything really.
Enter: Hartford Stage’s Neighborhood Studios Breakdancing Shakespeare production of Much Ado About Nothing, which I had the pleasure of seeing last week. Featuring 16 Neighborhood Studios teenage apprentices, I know what you’re thinking—Breakdancing and Shakespeare? Does that work? Lax those furrowed brows and doubts, because the answer is a resounding yes!
Above all through my eyes, Breakdancing Shakespeare managed to mix together original music with heart-stopping choreography while still binding everything together with Shakespeare’s lyrics, characters and themes. For instance, Much Ado About Nothing explores the need to remain critical of information sources, interrogating the classic dichotomies of honesty vs. deception and reality vs. fiction. Amidst the dance battles, headstands, flips and other impressive acrobatics performed by the entire cast, Breakdancing Shakespeare never lost site of this crucial theme, instead choosing the lines from the play’s original text that best exemplified this concept. Although I’m sure it must have been difficult for the adaptors, by accomplishing this feat clearly and crisply, they kept the heart of Shakespeare in their performance while still chocking it full of incredible spectacle—no easy task I’m sure, but certainly worthy of praise!
Another truly impressive feature about Breakdancing Shakespeare was the fact that the performance came together within such a short span of time. The Neighborhood Studios apprentices only had six (!) weeks to prepare each movement, song and line for this production. The apprentices, alongside the master teaching artists, must have had their hands full the entire time with each aspect of the incredibly multifaceted production. And being able to pull it off in such glorious fashion only speaks wonders to everyone’s talents and work ethics involved in Breakdancing Shakespeare.
Reflecting about this Neighborhood Studios program as a whole, Breakdancing Shakespeare not only helps teach teens about the wonders (and head tilts) of Shakespeare, but also leaves them with such a great experience about the work it takes to develop a career in the arts. Although I’m sure there were many falls (literally and symbolically) along the way, each apprentice surmounted the challenges of a professional theatrical production with personal style, humor and grace. Those experiences, hardships and triumphs can only help each apprentice with opportunities in any position later in their careers. And in my opinion, therein lies the true magic of all of our Neighborhood Studios programs.
All in all, I had a blast going to see the production. Kudos to the staff and apprentices that made it all possible. And I would guess Shakespeare, although confused, would be proud of the production, as well.
(All photos courtesy of The Defining Photo, LLC)