The Carolina Ballet has found a new way to tell a 400-year-old tale, stripping the dialogue from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and replacing it with dance and music.
In this wordless medieval world, costumes, sets and lighting help convey the timeless story of ambition, affection, murder, deceit and madness.
“For me, it sort of begins with stone,” said Jeff A.R. Jones, resident designer for the show, premiering April 14. Since he began designing and building sets for the ballet, Jones has become obsessed with stone: its different shapes, colors and textures. “I can’t drive down the road right now without looking at rocks,” he said.
There have been countless productions of “Macbeth” since it was first performed around 1611, including three film versions, but only one other has attempted to convey the story as a ballet.
The Carolina Ballet’s version is entirely new. J. Mark Scearce, who also wrote the music for the company’s “Dracula,” composed the music for “Macbeth,” to be performed by the 40-piece Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle. Choreography is by company CEO Robert “Ricky” Weiss, his first full-sized creation since “Don Quixote” in 2008.
While some productions of “Macbeth” set it in the author’s original 11th-century Scotland, others have placed it in modern-day boardrooms or post-apocalyptic wastelands. Weiss envisioned the ballet as a period piece, but no more specific a period than the Middle Ages.
“Medieval-Scottish-ish,” as Kerri Martinsen, costume director, put it.
Shakespeare is believed to have crafted the story using contemporary accounts of British history, referencing real people but embellishing and conflating for theatrical effect.
The gist is this: Macbeth, a Scottish warrior, is told by three witches that he will become King of Scotland. Instead of waiting for the prophecy to come true, he plots with his beloved wife, Lady Macbeth, to murder the sitting king and take his throne. One murder quickly leads to another as blind ambition and paranoia take over until Lady Macbeth loses her mind and her husband, his life.
It’s a big production with a lot of scene changes. For fluidity and speed, Jones wanted set pieces that, with a little repositioning, could work in multiple scenes. So a rock castle wall, visually formidable but carved of lightweight foam and skillfully painted and shaded, might be turned on its side to represent a headboard. Furnishings are rustic: chunky wood and iron. There will be “fire.”
Jones also is the company’s stage-fight instructor, a big job in this production since Macbeth relies on violence to take and try to hold his throne. Jones had a friend in Durham custom-build an arsenal of knives, axes and swords for the ballet.
“I want the sets to evoke a place, a sense, a mood,” Jones said, one befitting dark themes of violence and greed. “There is an oppressiveness to the stone wall so that when it’s closed, it feels like a leaning cliff that might just collapse on you. That’s sort of where MacBeth is living; he thinks he has created this world, this fortress, but it could all fall down because of what he’s done to get there.”
It has taken a long while for the Carolina Ballet to get here. Weiss has said he wanted to choreograph a ballet to “Macbeth” for years, but couldn’t find music he liked. Last year, he and Scearce received a fellowship from New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts, and spent five weeks in New York City working on the piece.
An important part of the work is the addition of a prequel, not part of Shakespeare’s script, that introduces the love affair between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The early emphasis on the couple’s relationship adds another motive for their increasingly craven behavior.
The music for the ballet was still being orchestrated and the final choreography done the week before Easter.
In rehearsals at the company’s headquarters in North Raleigh one late March afternoon, a pianist played as Weiss worked out a scene in the spooky Birnam Wood, where Macbeth encounters the witches and where the army of his nemesis gathers before advancing on Macbeth’s castle. Working in series of three to five moves at a time, Weiss brought the woods to life through the dancers’ steps and shapes, making trees and vines of their sinewy arms and legs.
Ross Kolman, resident lighting director for the Carolina Ballet, watched and took notes, mentally subtracting the sunlight that poured in through huge glass bays at the back of the rehearsal space and adding the theatrical lights that he would install just days before the show’s opening.
It will take 250 to 350 lights to create the mood for “Macbeth,” said Kolman, who has access to remote control fixtures, an increasing palette of LED lights and other technology of which earlier producers of Shakespeare’s plays could not have dreamed.
“The idea is to make it all cohesive, to have this flow,” Kolman said. “It’s all about creating place.”
Kolman, too, has worked with Weiss enough to know what he wants, and has worked in both spaces where the ballet will be performed – Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium first, then DPAC – so he knows how far he can go in each.
“It’s like cooking,” he said. “Sometimes you’re cooking an omelet, and sometimes it’s a seven-course meal with lots of spices.”
Tweed and chiffon
Like others working on the production, David Heuvel, principal guest costume designer for “Macbeth,” was excited about the opportunity to create something new. Working with Weiss’ vision, he said, the pair wanted costumes that looked period but were pleasing to the modern eye. As with all dancewear, it also had to allow for easy movement, something that wasn’t a consideration for medieval clothiers creating suits of metal armor and dresses of heavy brocade.
Everything in a ballet has to work together toward telling the story: the music, the choreography, the set, the lights, the costumes.
“I think that any costume should lend itself to the choreography and not stand out from the choreography,” said Heuvel, who also is costume production designer for the Ballet West in Salt Lake City. “The costume has to flow out of the music.”
Once he had rendered the costumes, Heuvel showed them to Weiss and the two settled on final designs, which include pants, not traditional tights, for the men. Then Heuvel went to New York and Los Angeles to gather swatches: gossamer for the witches’ robes, earthy plaids and tweeds for the men.
Where the music is soft in “Macbeth,” the clothing also will be soft, with lots of chiffon and pastels. In battle scenes, dancers will wear heavier, darker canvas with leather and metallic trim.
Lady Macbeth’s costumes are especially evocative, using color gradient to emphasize her descent from hopeful innocence to murderous intent to insanity. She appears in the prequel in a white wedding gown, with each costume change going a darker shade of pink until she appears in a blood-red gown. At the end, she is clothed again in white, but her return to guiltlessness is only a dream in which she tries to cleanse the blood from her hands.
Blood – and there is so much of it in “Macbeth” – is a challenge in theater and especially in ballet. It has to look real, and then it has to be removed – from the floor, where it could make a dancer fall, and from set pieces, props and costumes.
It’s up to Martinsen, the costume director, to turn Heuvel’s renderings into garments that are fitted to individual dancers and sturdy enough to withstand 10 or more years of hard use. As the premiere date neared, she was still working on ways to show, or imply, all that blood. It was one of hundreds of things on her to-do list to complete the 150 outfits required for the ballet. Each look takes about eight hours to craft.
In addition to the six costume builders regularly employed by Carolina Ballet, Martinsen hired eight others from around the country to help meet her deadline. In the shop at the ballet’s office, sewing machines hummed and dancers came in and out for fittings. “The bible,” a thick binder stuffed with swatches and sourcing information, lay open on Martinsen’s desk while she pecked at her computer, ordering additional trims. Shelves were stacked with crates of fabric scraps marked “Banquet Dresses” and “MacDuff Family.” A rainbow of thread spools was mounted on the wall. Scissors lay about.
Even late in the process, Martinsen said, changes sometimes must be made. The witches’ ethereal green robes, for instance, were drawn and sewn with 3-foot trains that had to be trimmed when the extra fabric interfered with the dancers’ movements.
Martinsen, who has six years with the company, also loves the creative challenge of an original work.
“It’s a nice change as opposed to what we call a ‘show in a box,’ ” she said.
With the rack of completed costumes slowly filling, Martinsen took a moment to think whether she had a favorite.
“Lady Macbeth’s wedding gown,” she answered, the white one replete with pearls. “Because it’s so beautiful, but also because it’s the first one we finished.”
Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin
What: “Macbeth” presented by Carolina Ballet
When/Where: 8 p.m. April 14-16 and 2 p.m. April 16-17, Memorial Auditorium, Duke Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh; and 8 p.m. April 30 and 2 p.m. May 1, Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), 123 Vivian St, Durham.
Cost: Tickets range from $30-$83 for Raleigh show; $32 to $38 for DPAC show.
Info: 919-719-0900 or www.carolinaballet.com