“Speechless Complainer”: (Un)natural Violence in Dominic Walsh’s Titus Andronicus
Dominic Walsh’s 2008 dance adaptation of Titus opens up new possibilities in Shakespeare’s text, ones that bring Lavinia’s character to the fore. In many theatrical productions, Lavinia remains an aesthetic backdrop in Titus’ narrative of revenge. Walsh focuses less on Lavinia’s role as a catalyst for her father’s revenge and, instead, emphasizes her own traumatic experience as a survivor of sexual violence. Therefore, Walsh’s Titus is an important challenge to Shakespeare’s text, one that situates dance as a feminist mode of expression for reimagining a classic theatrical narrative. This production makes a case for dance as an urgent critical tool to interpret Shakespeare’s plays, as well as a means of questioning traditional or “natural” balletic gendering.
Keywords: Shakespeare, dance, ballet, gender, adaptation
William Shakespeare is no stranger to the dance floor. His plays contain many references to dance and have inspired countless dance adaptations across the centuries, from classical ballets to Broadway musicals and hip-hop productions. Some Shakespearean works lend themselves to movement more readily than others: Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, with their romantic themes and celestial references, are frequently adapted for ballet productions. Less utilized are Shakespeare’s gruesome tragedies. In The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay questions, “How do you dance ‘to be or not to be’ or ‘hath not a Jew hands’ or ‘All the world’s a stage’? Fat chance.” He states, “As far as I know, nobody has choreographed Shylock or Falstaff; I can’t say I’ve wished they would. Much about Shakespeare is intensely visual though” (Macaulay). Within the canon, Titus Andronicus may be Shakespeare’s most “intensely visual” play, with its numerous images of blood, gore and dismemberment.
Although Titus Andronicus may seem an unconventional choice for a dance adaptation, Dominic Walsh took up the challenge to stage this bloody tragedy as a modern dance production in 2008. Walsh, former principal dancer and artistic director of the Houston Ballet Company, founded Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre in 2002 and yearned to stage a version of Titus Andronicus “for nearly a decade” (Glentzer). His “stylish, whimsical, ultra-modern adaptation” finally premiered at the Hobby Center in Houston, Texas, in October 2008 (Smith). Walsh collaborated with Two Star Orchestra (scoring) and Frederique de Montblanc (sets and costuming) to create a startling adaptation of Titus Andronicus, set in an airport security screening area and populated by dancers sporting pristine, country club attire.
This essay will undertake a reading of Walsh’s modern dance adaptation Titus Andronicus in relation to the Shakespearean playtext. Walsh creates an augmented, dynamic role for the Lavinia character that expands upon the Shakespeare’s text. Therefore, Walsh’s Titus challenges conceptions of the Shakespearean playtext as “meaningless spectacle” and “gloatingly grotesque” (Dickson 1). I argue that Walsh’s choreographic choices enable a feminist recovery of Shakespeare’s Lavinia character, through various stylistic choices of staging, choreography, set and costume design, and musical composition.
“The palace full of tongues, of eyes, and ear”: Staging Titus Andronicus
As Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, “the contest for power in Titus Andronicus takes place on the battlefield of the flesh” and “is grounded on the systematic destruction of bodies” (Dickson 4). In Shakespeare’s play, even the body politic has been dismembered—the narrative begins with an initiative “to set a head on headless Rome” (Titus 1.1.186). Walsh affirms that Titus is “an incredibly physical play,” one that is saturated with violence (Lu). In devising his adaptation, Walsh and his designer Frederique de Montblanc “discussed humanity’s impulse to contain violence” and “wanted a closed-feeling space to signify that” (Glentzer). Thus, the performance takes place within an airport security screening station. A metal detector stands stage right and a transparent plastic barrier stretches across the upstage area, behind which dancers are queued, clutching their possessions in large grey bins. This fictional airport is a site in which bodies are subjected to scrutiny, and citizens temporarily exchange their liberty for safety by submitting to security procedures.
In theory, the pedestrian “dance” that occurs throughout all airport security areas operates under a presumed threat of violence: travelers participate in highly choreographed patterns of movement to ensure their safety from potential acts of terrorism. In Walsh’s production, dancers engage with the architecture of the security barrier, emerging behind or in front of it to highlight their vacillating positions of power. When Tamora’s son Alarbus dies, his blood splatters across the transparent blockade, leaving Tamora to hurl her body against the plastic. Props as well as set pieces instantiate themes of political violence—scissors, golf clubs, riding crops, tennis rackets, knives and, finally, a blender—illustrate increasing displays of savagery at the hands of the elite, as wielded by the dancers.
Walsh uses a smaller cast to create a more intimate, close-knit version of Shakespeare’s play— Marcus does not appear, nor do Titus’ sons and grandson. This artistic decision foments a darker ending, in which no new political regime arises to reinstate order and hope in Rome. However, this closing is one of many subtle alterations in Walsh’s production that engage our sympathies on behalf of Lavinia’s character. The performance’s lack of narrative closure suggests that the brutal assault on Lavinia prohibits any possibility of societal redemption. Instead, her psychological turmoil becomes the focal point of the production and lingers in the audience’s collective consciousness until the final curtain closes.
“Her Martyred Signs”: Lavinia’s Embodied Expression
In his Titus, Walsh takes pains to establish Lavinia as a quintessential ingénue character, before subverting audience’s expectations in order to deviate from her characterization as a mere “changing piece” in Shakespeare’s text (Titus 1.1.309). Walsh describes Lavinia as “a very proper girl in the beginning . . . a 50s housewife” (Lu). This initial portrayal aligns with the Lavinia of Shakespeare’s “thematically patriarchal world,” in which “sexuality is a family matter that only the father can deal with” (Kahn 47–48).
In Walsh’s production, Lavinia’s first duet with her father is telling; Titus manipulates Lavinia’s body in their partnering steps, extending and circling her arms like a puppeteer as she kneels in positions of spatial inferiority. Lavinia’s flexed hands, held outwards from her body, conjure doll-like imagery, which further stresses her role as a manipulate-able object. They also foreshadow the mutilation to come.
Through this particular choreographic sequence, Walsh highlights Shakespeare’s conception of Lavinia as woman-turned-property. In Shakespeare’s play, Bassianus frequently asserts his ownership over Lavinia, declaring, “this maid is mine,” and calling her “my own” (Titus 1.1.279-413). Titus expresses a similar sovereignty over Lavinia, instructing her “by my advice, all humbled on your knees” (Titus 1.1.482). Although Walsh preserves Lavinia’s submissive relationship to Titus, he diverges from the Shakespearean playtext by constructing a more equitable partnership between Lavinia and Bassianus.
Rather than a typical romantic pas de deux, which features the man lifting the woman, Walsh choreographs two playful duets for Bassianus and Lavinia in which they sway, hop and glide in unison. When Bassianus does lift Lavinia, it is she who initiates the movement; providing her arm or leg to signal consent before he steps in to carry her. The two dancers perform several weight-sharing partner movements throughout their duets, illustrating the balanced dependence between Bassianus and Lavinia. Often, Lavinia acts as the dominant partner, approaching Bassianus from behind to grasp him in a hug or to support his head as she places her head over his. Moreover, Lavinia’s movements are less staccato and jerky in these sequences; her choreography with Bassianus reads as fluid and comfortable.
This display of mutual passion deviates from Shakespeare’s text, in which Bassianus’ avowal of love is met with Lavinia’s passive silence in Act 1 Scene 1 of Titus. In fact, several scholars, including Gayle Rubin and Bernice Harris, have drawn comparisons between Lavinia’s physical rape in Act 2 Scene 3 and her symbolic rape—“the abduction of a woman as property”—by Bassianus in Act 1 Scene 1 (Harris 388). Shakespeare does not provide Lavinia with lines affirming her active consent to marry Bassianus; therefore, this amorous pas de deux has no textual equivalent in Shakespeare’s play. In Walsh’s production, however, Lavinia consensually engages in a partnership in which she moves as freely as her counterpart.
Walsh’s deeper investment in the Lavinia-Bassianus relationship shifts the object of “collateral damage” from Lavinia to Bassianus, so that the latter’s death is used to amplify the brutality of Lavinia’s assault (Halpern 52). When Chiron and Demetrius sunder the reciprocal romance between Bassianus and Lavinia, they halt the empowering male-female partnership in which Lavinia exercised her will to choose. At the beginning of the assault scene, Tamora’s sons drag Bassianus offstage as Lavinia clings desperately to his corpse. Because Bassianus and Lavinia appear as co-entities in this tableau, they are the first metaphorical limb severed as Lavinia is forced to part from her lover. This image parallels Shakespeare’s corresponding scene, in which Lavinia avers, “For ‘tis not life that I have begged so long;/ Poor I was slain when Bassianus died” (Titus 2.3.170–171). Bassianus’ murder is the first of many assaults on Lavinia; she then begs Tamora for mercy from impending sexual violation.
Walsh’s staging of the rape scene magnifies the disparity between Shakespeare’s playtext and Walsh’s own production. Critics have characterized Lavinia’s plea to Tamora in Shakespeare’s Titus as “unpersuasive” and “lack(ing) fluency” (Packard 287), which suggests “the limitations of the authority vested in Lavinia’s voice” (Detmer-Goebel 80). Conversely, Walsh lends pathos to Lavinia’s physicalized entreaty by supplying her with a lively solo in place of the monologue, which characterizes her as affecting despite her terror. Tamora remains unmoved by Lavinia’s piteous movements—“I will not hear her speak”—and encourages her sons’ rapaciousness by caressing them sensuously (Titus 2.3.137). Here, the choreography shifts as Lavinia remains (trans)fixed while Chiron and Demetrius encircle her; “part of their glee derives from their ability to turn Lavinia into the exaggeratedly passive, silent woman they took her for” (Ray 36). In this tableau, Walsh shifts focus from what Lavinia’s body can do (dexterity through movement) to what it can be made to be (a site of defilement). Lavinia’s dancing devolves into stillness as the brothers caress her, violating the previous construction of Lavinia’s body as something to be seen but not touched. Lavinia performs only subtle protective movements, attempting to shield herself (particularly her genital area) from the men’s advances.
In this pivotal scene, rather than simply depicting an assault in which Lavinia is the victim, Walsh performs a stylistic indictment of Chiron and Demetrius and turns their cruelty itself into spectacle. Walsh harnesses various production design elements to pull focus away from her victimhood and onto their barbarism. Strobe lights mimic alarm sirens as Chiron and Demetrius tug at Lavinia’s costume, which unravels into threads as she symbolically ruptures in their hands. Music dies as the orchestra halts, revealing the sounds of Lavinia’s whimpering and the men’s cruel laughter.
Walsh uses sensationalist tactics on Lavinia’s perpetrators in order to visually critique sexual violence and its agents. For example, when this trio appears onstage again, a stark tonal shift in the performance signals that a violation of Lavinia’s body also violates the very fabric of Walsh’s production. Red gel lights bathe the stage in crimson, as piped-in prerecorded music replaces the live orchestra—a clear breach of the aesthetic collaboration hitherto observed in this production. The prerecorded song playing is Shirley Temple’s rendition of “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” from the 1934 film Bright Eyes. Chiron is a lurid version of Temple, sporting tap shoes and Lavinia’s skirt. The invocation of Temple enhances the perversity of this scene—Temple’s voice accompanying a scene of sexual violation signals pedophilic undertones. Chiron’s movements are therefore a physical correlative to Demetrius’ taunting lines in Shakespeare’s text: “So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,/ Who ‘twas that cut thy tongue and ravished thee” (Titus 2.4.1–2). Detmer-Goebel writes, “the rapists mock her inability to speak, write, wash, or even hang herself,” arguing that “the brutality of the rape is . . . intensified by their grotesque satisfaction with Lavinia’s enforced silence” (Detmer-Goebel 81). Walsh conveys this mockery through gesture when Lavinia’s assailants cup their hands to their ears and then shake their heads, indicating that Lavinia can make no noise—just as Temple sings “I want to make some noise” (Whiting). Walsh’s visual choices draw audience attention to the brothers, particularly Chiron, in order to overtly critique their behavior in a way that Shakespeare’s written playtext does not.
Walsh alternates attention between Lavinia and Chiron/Demetrius and, by doing so, avoids making a mutilated female body the sole aesthetic object of this scene. When Walsh focuses on Lavinia’s body, he does so in a way that criticizes the figurative wounds of patriarchal violence. For example, Demetrius peels off Lavinia’s blonde tresses, exposing them as an artificial wig and revealing her natural auburn hair beneath. Here, Lavinia is stripped of the trappings that signal her position as virginal ingénue, an idealized version of femininity. In this moment, spectators might be spurred to question why Lavinia wears her wig and why women are compelled to visually represent their purity. When the brothers ravage the very construction of the virginal ideal, Walsh again points to the ways in which Shakespeare’s playtext situates Lavinia as property. Chiron and Demetrius destroy Titus’ careful investment in Lavinia: “For Titus, Lavinia’s worth resides in her exchange value as a virgin daughter” (Kahn 49). Walsh exposes the brothers’ villainy and critiques the oppressive aesthetic demands placed upon women beyond the immediate context of this scene: “the violence that is always already involved in attempting to speak of and for Lavinia” (Aebischer 31). In the assault scene, Lavinia herself—displayed in her underwear—becomes a prop, as her attackers prop her up and dance with her while she remains limp. Walsh stresses the trauma of this scene by shifting Lavinia’s vital, dancing body into listlessness; a stillness that signals the termination of physical and social freedom. The first act of Walsh’s production concludes with this scene, marking Lavinia’s assault as the thematic crux of Titus’ narrative.
Walsh’s Titus enables a feminist reading of Shakespeare’s playtext, particularly regarding the aftermath of Lavinia’s assault. Arguably, Walsh’s violation scene parallels Shakespeare’s: Lavinia’s maimed body limits her vocabulary of movement in Walsh’s dance just as her missing tongue limits her vocalization in Shakespeare’s playtext. In both mediums, whether Shakespeare’s text or Walsh’s choreography, forced sexual intercourse prohibits future expressive intercourse. However, here I argue that Walsh’s production endows the Lavinia character with greater agency than Shakespeare’s playtext does. After losing her tongue, Lavinia’s lines necessarily terminate; she becomes the visual representation of her assault but not much more. For example, Kahn observes that after Lavinia identifies her rapists, “she disappears for four scenes” and returns “not only mute but veiled, assisting in the revenge that now belongs to her father” (Kahn 48). Within a constellation of vocal male characters, Lavinia is a mute, violated, fetishized body. This absence of expression is not the case in Walsh’s production.
Walsh takes up “the textual gap left by Lavinia’s erasure” after her assault in Shakespeare’s playtext, by providing Lavinia’s character with a number of physical sequences in which she expresses herself through movement (Aebischer 25). In this dance performance, Lavinia’s character still has access to the vocabulary she commanded before her rape. Therefore, her continued physical communication through dance is unlike the total absence of speech that occurs in Shakespeare’s playtext. In the play, “mutilated Lavinia is available for interpretation not so much as a suffering subject of violence, but as an object” (Aebischer 27–28). In Walsh’s production, Lavinia effectively relearns the “speech” of movement in order to convey her story; a contrast to the Shakespearean textual equivalent, in which others tell it for her: “shall I speak for thee, shall I say ‘tis so?” (Titus 2.4.33). Lavinia executes choreography both before and after her supposed incapacitation; communicating in her “native tongue” even after her tongue is expunged.
In Walsh’s production, the second act reveals a string of six Lavinias behind the security partition, bound together by a swath of red cloth. Initially, Walsh’s choreography depicts Lavinia’s physical inadequacy; the dancers wriggle their shoulders with hands behind their backs to convey labored movement. Wobbly legs and bowed heads are a hallmark of this sequence, as the dancers struggle with their limited abilities. Soon, however, the choreography becomes more encompassing as the dancers maneuver a greater number of body parts, experimenting with the boundaries of their new range of motion. Walsh’s use of multiple dancers in this scene performs several crucial thematic functions.
First, the image of six women allegorizes Shakespeare’s narrative of dismemberment and split selves: “in Shakespeare’s text, the handless bodies of Titus and Lavinia” resist a “symbolic discourse of wholeness” (Imbracsio 298). Initially, the performers dance together in a caterpillar-like chain, moving their bodies in tandem. Soon they scatter, shifting to various parts of the stage while still connected by the red cloth. This tableau symbolizes Lavinia’s severed limbs, strewn across the floor and linked only by blood.
Second, the multiple Lavinias have the potential to exemplify the feelings of disjointedness between former and present selves often experienced by rape victims. However, Walsh’s choice to represent Lavinia’s character through several dancers both literalizes and counters notions of fracture. Even as the presence of multiple bodies suggests a splintering selfhood, it also augments Lavinia’s number of body parts during the very scene in which an audience expects them to be diminished.
Walsh’s visual choice to place multiple dancers onstage, therefore, challenges Shakespeare’s amputation of Lavinia by both taking away her hands and symbolically giving her more of them. Most importantly, Walsh’s decision to make this a choral scene—rather than a solo for Dawn Dippel, who dances the role of Lavinia throughout the production—signals a larger social commentary on the effects of sexual assault, rather than a detailing of Lavinia’s individual trauma.
Walsh’s subsequent discovery scene, in which Titus encounters a mutilated Lavinia, highlights Titus’s inability to care properly for his daughter. Lavinia continually moves towards Titus in search of consolation, while he retreats in horror and discomfort. This duet parallels Shakespeare’s playtext, in which Titus expresses his aversion to Lavinia’s mangled form and what it signifies. He cries, “Ay me, this object kills me!” (Titus 3.1.66) and “Forwhy my bowels cannot hide her woes/ But like a drunkard must I vomit them” (Titus 3.1.235–6). Titus cannot stomach Lavinia’s marred body, and thus he neglects her in this moment. Walsh physicalizes this act of recoiling by contrasting Lavinia’s purposeful, fluid movement with Titus’ staccato, mechanical choreography. Titus jerkily articulates his hands, legs, elbows, thrusting as though to escape “this hollow prison of my flesh” (Titus 3.2.10). Father and daughter dance around one another, as he evades her gaze. In a following scene, however, when he realizes that she is trying to convey a message to him, Titus engages in a duet with Lavinia. She does not insert a stick in her mouth to reveal the identity of her attackers, as she does in Shakespeare’s playtext. Instead, she plants a writing implement in the crook of her elbow and scrawls across the transparent security barrier in blood-red ink as her father pushes her on a metal gurney. This stylistic choice echoes Shakespeare’s descriptions of Lavinia’s non-verbal communication as choreography: she “lifts her arms in sequence” (Titus 4.1.38), then Titus “wrest(s) an alphabet” from Lavinia’s “dumb action” and proceeds to enact revenge (Titus 3.2.40–44).
In his corresponding act of revenge against the Goths, Walsh’s Titus involves Lavinia as a co-conspirator. The father and daughter capture Chiron and Demetrius in a reversal of the assault scene: now, the brothers’ naked bodies are paralyzed and on display as Lavinia and Titus dance around them. The production’s costuming highlights this parallel: Titus accessorizes his white tennis outfit with a red racket that recalls the brothers’ red-accented clothing, while Lavinia sports an all-black, martial ensemble that mirrors the black outfit worn by Tamora throughout the production. Lavinia’s costume challenges Shakespeare’s stage direction, in which Lavinia enters “with a veil over her face” to signify her shame (Titus 5.3).
As in the assault scene, Walsh facilitates an abrupt change in tone: pre-recorded Italian music replaces the orchestra again as father and daughter perform jaunty, balletic movements to taunt their captives. Walsh’s choreography highlights the Titus-Lavinia collaboration as they exchange affirming glances. Stereotypical gender roles are reversed here as Lavinia operates the machinery (blender) while Titus prepares a baking sheet. After blending the innards of Chiron and Demetrius, Titus and Lavinia perform a triumphant “high-five” motion with their forearms; a sign that affirms this deed as a collaborative one, rather than one engineered by Titus alone. As Tamora, Saturninus and Aaron gather around the dinner table to unwittingly consume the brothers, “Lollipop” is reintroduced in a musical refrain: Lavinia’s vengeance is served.
Yet, Walsh distinguishes Titus from Lavinia in how each character participates in this shared act of retribution. Throughout the sequence, Titus’s movements are more explicitly mocking: his tilted head, frequent swipes with his tennis racket, stylized marches with hyper-exaggerated elbows pumping and patronizing ruffling of Chiron and Demetrius’s hair, all suggest an exultant, derisive tone. Titus leans on Chiron and Demetrius’s shoulders, using their captive bodies to support his arabesques, before coming to rest with hands on hips and one foot crossed before the other, as if parodying a pedestrian, cavalier posture. Moreover, Domenico Luciano (who dances the role of Titus) showcases his superb technique in this sequence (through elongated extensions, suspended balances, and graceful waltz turns), as if to imply that Titus’s own virtuosity is most pronounced when mobilized in acts of violence. Based on Walsh’s choreography, Titus seems to replicate the stylized violence of Chiron and Demetrius, through his intentional blending of elegant balletic movements with the crassness of violence and mockery.
By contrast, Lavinia participates in this sequence with less style and more substance. She executes key functional aspects of the retribution, such as capturing the brothers’ blood by balancing a bowl on her forearms and holding it beneath their necks. These contributions demonstrate Lavinia’s increased facility of movement despite her amputated hands and tongue. Evidently, Lavinia has figured out how to maneuver her body to perform critical functions—including this vindicating deed. Yet, in this sequence, Lavinia seemingly chooses to forgo Titus’s nimble choreography for more understated, commanding movements. Lavinia does less but conveys more than her father: she marches slowly across the front of the stage in slow, purposeful strides, before coming to stand in front of each perpetrator in turn. She holds the gaze of each brother for a long moment, conveying her spite, revulsion and triumph through her eyes alone. In this scene, Walsh’s Lavinia seems to exercise a tightly controlled fury; she is contained in her expression of due justice, whereas Titus appears to create a show out of his (altogether more self-conscious) choreography. Lavinia completes her revenge against the Goths, but she does not seem stylistically to revel in it as Titus does.
In a final departure from Shakespeare’s playtext, Walsh ensures that Lavinia dies after she is officially revenged. In Shakespeare’s text, Titus kills Lavinia before she witnesses the cannibalism, crying: “Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee,/ And with thy shame thy father’s sorrow die” (Titus 5.3.46–47). In this production, Lavinia dances in an ensemble sequence with the other dinner guests before backing into Titus’ arms, taking an active role in her death. As the final curtain descends, a spotlight features Lavinia’s prone body amongst the many corpses. Although the piece bears her father’s name, Lavinia is the true protagonist of Walsh’s production.
Walsh’s Titus contributes to a contemporary understanding of Shakespeare’s playtext by situating Lavinia’s character and the aftermath of her assault as the focus of the production, rather than a mere pretext for Titus’ final revenge. While in the playtext, “Shakespeare silences Lavinia,” Walsh lends her greater scope and agency (Detmer-Goebel 88). Walsh affirms that because Titus is “so intricate . . . and aggressive . . . discoveries can be made about how to explore this text through physicality” (Lu). In interrogating Shakespeare’s playtext, Walsh’s adaptation enhances it, by unveiling newfound layers of Titus’ textual meaning and thereby “danc(ing) out the answer” (Much Ado 2.1.70).
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*Ilana Gilovich-Wave is a PhD Candidate in Theatre at Columbia University and (until the COVID-19 shutdown) a performer in Punchdrunk’s off-Broadway Macbeth adaptation, Sleep No More. She earned her BA in English at Cornell University and her MA in Literary Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. Ilana has volunteered with the Cornell Prison Education Program to teach Shakespeare Studies and Nineteenth Century World Literature at Auburn Maximum Security Prison. She has worked on Shakespeare education programs with Epic Theatre Ensemble and the Belfast Ulster Museum.
Copyright © 2022 Ilana Gilovich-Wave
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