Where Art Thou, Juliet?
When Sergei Prokofiev composed the score for a ballet version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in 1935, he didn't work with a choreographer as is customary. His dramatic music told the story on its own, familiar scene by familiar scene, symphonic movement by symphonic movement. In fact, Prokofiev's composition is probably best known for its two independent orchestral suites. The score was so complex and illustrative that choreographers and dancers didn't know what to do with it. The Kirov, the Soviet ballet theater for which the score was written, at first dismissed the work as undanceable. The ballerina Galina Ulanova, who finally originated the role of Juliet five years later, seconded the sentiment, complaining that Prokofiev's music had too much expression, leaving little emotion for the dancers to evoke. The melodramatic pantomime style typical of classical story ballets would do nothing but compete with the heart-pounding score.
Still, many choreographers have tried their hand at Romeo and Juliet with varying degrees of success. Besides Leonid Lavrosky's original production for the Kirov, there's Sir Frederick Ashton's 1955 version for the Royal Danish Ballet and Sir Kenneth MacMillan's 1965 production, made famous by the performances of Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev in the title roles. In 1987 Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson, whom The New York Times once called "one of the most successful choreographers of full-length story ballets in the U.S. today," took his place in the panoply of Romeo and Juliet dancemakers. Stevenson's production was first danced by much-loved principal Janie Parker and then-up-and-comer Carlos Acosta. It has not been performed by the Houston Ballet since Parker retired. It seems that a good Juliet is hard to find.
But Dawn Scannell in her debut as the star-crossed lover on Thursday, June 8, solved the problem of Prokofiev perfectly, her subtle acting the ideal counterpoint to his score's grandeur. Scannell's sharp style, sometimes a bit harsh in the more lyrical pieces of the company's repertoire, is right for the quick and coquettish 14-year-old Capulet. And through the course of the three-hour ballet, as Juliet grows wiser in the unfortunate ways of the world, Scannell grows softer, creating plenty of touching moments along the way.
She is most enchanting in her relationship not with Romeo but with Phillip Broomhead's Paris, the man to whom she is betrothed. In the famous Capulet ball scene, Scannell personifies the uncomfortable dance that is adolescence, jumping back and forth between the adults and the children. Juliet attempts to imitate the haughty affectations of the grown-up guests in the grand group dance but steps out early in a rush of self-conscious giggles. In a pas de deux with Paris, she seems, if not in love, then a little excited by this new attention from a man and surprised by the elegant arabesque of the woman's body she has suddenly found herself in. Spotting and then focusing on Romeo only makes her performance with Paris more fascinating.
This is not to say that Juliet is not partnered beautifully by Dominic Walsh's Romeo in passionate lifts that spin all the way from overhead down to the floor. But Walsh's performance is more about the dancing than the acting. His showboating jumps and spins may have been intended to impress Juliet, but they end up underscoring the real focus of his attentions: himself, that is he is on a stage, before an audience. Likewise, his occasional flamboyant flourishes with a long black cape disrupt any chemistry-building between the two supposed lovers.
Other highlights include Parren Ballard as the mischievious Mercutio and three harlots danced by Lauren Anderson, Kathryn Warakomsky and Sally Rojas. The harlots practically stole every scene they were in with their folk-inspired dances, snapping their fingers, slapping their hips and hiking up their skirts to lure the Montague boys with their bare thighs. If you don't remember them from Shakespeare's play, that's because they weren't there. The roles seem to have originated with MacMillan's production of the ballet, but Stevenson gives them even greater significance, using them as something of an omniscient Greek chorus commenting on the action. They egg on the swordfights between the feuding families and poke fun at the nobility (though Stevenson does not explore the class distinctions so obviously pointed out in David Walker's costumes). But most effectively, the harlots often throw up their arms in a stylized gesture as if acknowledging the story's well-known conclusion. "It's going to end badly, you know," they seem to be saying to the audience and the dancers alike. "But there's nothing we can do about it."
The harlots bring the only real sense of foreboding to the production. Comic relief is a theme in most of Stevenson's ballets, and Romeo and Juliet is no exception. Mercutio is an obvious vehicle for getting laughs, and Stevenson takes full advantage. He also plays up the silliness of Juliet's nurse and lingers on the merry market scenes. Even the swordfights are swashbucklingly silly, the dancers looking more like boys playing pirate than embittered factions bent on killing each other. When someone actually dies, it seems absurd.
But this cheerful take on Romeo and Juliet is not entirely apropos of nothing. In some early incarnations of the ballet, dancemakers, amazingly enough, choreographed it with a happy ending. Commenting on this phenomenon, Prokofiev once said, "Living people can dance; the dying cannot." This production proves the composer wrong. In the final scene, Romeo lugs a lifeless Juliet through a bizarre pas de deux. Watching this, it's difficult to remember that there "never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo."
Romeo and Juliet runs through Sunday, June 18, with some changes in cast, at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater, 500 Texas Avenue, (713)227-ARTS. $11.50-$98.50.
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