Lavinia in Dominic Walsh’s Titus Andronicus
by Ilana Gilovich-Wave
Dominic Walsh’s modern dance production of Titus Andronicus premiered at the Hobby Center in Houston, TX in October 2008. Walsh collaborated with Two Star Orchestra (scoring) and Frederique de Montblanc (sets and costuming) to create a startling adaptation of Titus, set in an airport security screening area and populated by dancers sporting pristine, country club attire. 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). In fact, Walsh’s Titus contributes to a contemporary understanding of Shakespeare’s play by making the aftermath of Lavinia’s assault the focus of his production.
This first scene, which occurs just after the dance production’s intermission, has no corresponding equivalent in Shakespeare’s text. Walsh takes up what Pascale Aebischer calls “the textual gap left by Lavinia’s erasure” after her assault in Shakespeare’s text, by providing Lavinia’s character with a number of physical sequences in which she expresses herself through movement (25). Lavinia continues to communicate in her “native tongue” even after her tongue is expunged.
The first clip reveals a string of six Lavinias behind the security partition, bound together by a swath of red cloth (0:0:10). 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 (0:2:40). 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 (0:3:19).
Walsh’s use of multiple dancers in this scene performs several crucial thematic functions. First, the image of six women makes literal Shakespeare’s narrative of dismemberment and split selves— for in the play, Titus and Lavinia’s fractured bodies resist what Nicola Imbrascio calls a “symbolic discourse of wholeness” (298). Initially, the performers dance together in a caterpillar-like chain, moving their bodies in tandem (0:2:05). Soon they scatter, shifting to various parts of the stage while still connected by the red cloth (0:4:50). 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 literally 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— signals a larger social commentary on the effects of sexual assault, rather than a detailing of Lavinia’s individual trauma.
The subsequent scene, in which Titus encounters a mutilated Lavinia, highlights Titus’ inability to care for his daughter. Lavinia continually moves towards Titus in search of consolation, while he retreats in horror and discomfort (0:8:22). This duet parallels Shakespeare’s text, 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 neglects her in this moment. Walsh physicalizes this act of recoiling by contrasting Lavinia’s purposeful, fluid movement with Titus’ staccato, mechanical choreography (0:8:00). Father and daughter literally dance around one another, as he evades her gaze. Titus jerkily articulates his hands, legs, elbows, thrusting as though to escape “this hollow prison of my flesh” (Titus 3.2.10). He runs in place against the plastic security barrier, as if to express his impotence (0:8:55). This solo tracks Titus’ rapid internalization and ownership of his daughter’s assault; Lavinia is shunted to the sidelines as her father becomes the primary avenger.
By adapting the Titus narrative into a medium that is already inherently concerned with spectacles of the body, the blatant corporeality of Shakespeare’s text finds its corresponding outlet. Walsh’s retelling of Titus reconciles “the dialectic of living body and aesthetic form”— it bears an aesthetic appeal and provides a productive framework for considering the issues of gender and disability that Shakespeare’s play raises (Garner 63). In interrogating Shakespeare’s play, 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).
Aebischer, Pascale. Shakespeare’s Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Garner, Stanton B., Jr. Kinesthetic Spectatorship in the Theatre: Phenomenology, Cognition, Movement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Imbracsio, Nicola M. “Stage Hands: Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the Agency of the Disabled Body in Text and Performance.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 6, no. 3 (2012): 291-306.
Gilovich-Wave, Ilana. “‘Speechless Complainer’: Lavinia in Dominic Walsh’s Titus Andronicus.” The Shakespeare and Dance Project, edited by Linda McJannet, Lynsey McCulloch, Amy Rodgers, and Emily Winerock, October 9, 2021. shakespeareandance.com/articles/walsh-titus-andronicus. Accessed [date].
Updated October 9, 2021.