FORT WORTH Audiences love Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet because it deftly melds romance, action, comedy and tragedy, all brought together by the Bard's language.
Those are also the reasons they'll fall in love with Ben Stevenson's version of Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet. We may not hear the poetry being spoken, but we definitely see it through the expression of body movement.
The work opened Texas Ballet Theater's 2013-14 season on Friday at Bass Performance Hall, in a gorgeous production designed by David Walker (sets and costumes) and Tony Tucci (lighting).
The story is famous as a tale of forbidden love between youths in warring families, and for the fact that it doesn't turn out well for them or several other major characters – the body count is six by the play's end.
The dialogue between the title characters is some of most beautiful in the English language; and although those moments between Lucas Priolo and Carolyn Judson are stunning – the pas de deux in the garden of the balcony scene has to be one of the most romantic moments in all of ballet – Stevenson is able to make the rest of the play, with the crowd, ballroom and fight scenes, just as, if not more, memorable. (In the four remaining performances of R&J this weekend, Priolo and Judson play the title roles again at the Sunday matinee; they're played by Carl Coomer and Leticia Oliveira on Saturday and Sunday night, and Alexander Kotelnets and Betsy McBride at the Saturday matinee).
Romeo's friendship with Mercutio (Thomas Kilps) and Benvolio (Simon Wexler) is a close brotherhood, with the trio always looking out for one another and acting more their age – teenagers, after all – than you usually see in the play. The crowd scenes at the marketplace and the ballroom are filled with visuals of interest – Stevenson is a master at crowd scenes – and lovely spots of dancing for the corps (in top form, working nicely in sync) and for characters who's aren't the play, such as the Three Harlots(Robin Bangert, Michelle LaBoeuf, Katelyn Clenaghan on Friday night, all mining some comedy).
And then there are the fight scenes, led by fight coach Brian Byrnes. All of the sword fights are well done – you expect the skill of ballet dancers to make fencing look even more graceful – but if Friday is any indication, the dynamic of Priolo as Romeo and Kotelnets as Tybalt is going to be the fight scene to beat. They're both tall, imposing figures, and their battle is a remarkable feat of movement, filled with speed, athleticism, danger and urgency.
In supporting roles, Anna Donovan gets big laughs as the Nurse, the comic relief in the play as well; Lady Capulet (alternated by Carmen Mathe and Julie Grumbinner) has some stirring moments; and Coomer creates a Paris with whom you can empathize.
That final scene in the story is well-known, and it's hard to imagine anything replacing Shakespeare's words when Romeo finds Juliet in the tomb, thinking she is dead. But here, as he carries her body and dances with it – Judson's grace even as a limp corpse is astounding – it's all the poetry you need.
It's why Stevenson is one of the greats. He can take one of the world's best-known stories and translate it through the storytelling tool of dance, keeping the narrative and the emotion beautifully intact.
All of this is aided by Prokofiev's lush music. It's too bad we still have to hear it in a recorded version, but there is a glimmer of hope for the return of live music at TBT,as the spring production of Swan Lake will feature the Fort Worth Symphony playing Tchaikovsky's music. Hopefully next time they stage Romeo and Juliet again, live music will take it to the next level.