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Houston Ballet Unveils Stanton Welch's Take on Romeo and Juliet

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Imagine that you've been doing the same choreography by a revered figure in the dance world for a classic ballet with beautiful music for more than two decades. Audiences like it, so why not leave well alone? That makes sense, right?

Except that Houston Ballet's Artistic Director, Stanton Welch, decided he couldn't leave it alone. For the past three and a half years, he's been developing his own new choreography for Romeo and Juliet, and when the ballet is unveiled this week, it will be the first new production telling the tale of the two star-crossed lovers here in 28 years.

"We'd done [former Houston Ballet artistic director] Ben's [Stevenson] production of Romeo and Juliet twice, and I felt like it was time for a fresh take," Welch explains. "I wanted to try to get more dancing involved." He points out that when Stevenson first choreographed the work for the Houston Ballet, the company was much smaller.

"I wanted to adapt to what we have now," Welch says. "And I wanted to have my chance to tell the story with that wonderful music, so it just fell into place very serendipitously, all the stars aligned."

"It's always been a dream to get a chance to do Romeo and Juliet. It's a ballet that I grew up watching. I can remember seeing my mother dance it when I was about five or six. And then, of course, I danced it or watched it. The music is so ingrained."

He says that even in rehearsals, from a young age he looked at the choreography with an eye both appreciative and critical and imagined how he might do it differently.

Several factors went into Welch's being able to make his new vision a reality, he says. "We had to raise a substantial amount of money and we had to find the right designer." And, he says, it helped that the strength of the company has grown with the right dancers.

There are three sets of lead dancers. Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez will dance the leads opening night; the other pairings are Jared Matthews with Sara Web and Ian Casady with Melody Mennite. But Welch was also determined that everyone onstage would have more of a part.

"As dancers, they all want to dance. No one wants to spend the evening holding a spear," he says.

"All the women are on pointe. I always want everyone on pointe because once you've decided that a pointe shoe is the logic, how does one girl have one and another woman not unless it's a part of the story? That certainly makes everyone dance a lot more just in the sense that they're all in pointe shoes."

He brought in well-known Italian designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno to handle the costumes and the scenery. She's been working on her plans for the past 18 months. And the funding was made possible through longtime Houston Ballet supporters Ted and Melza Barr.

Asked about the enduring appeal of this ballet, Welch points to the story from Shakespeare and then the music that Sergei Prokofiev wrote. "There's something in that score that is so clearly a story, so clearly dealing with love and with heartbreak and agony."

The dancing is about two hours and 15 minutes with two intermissions, Welch says, and they've already started conversations with other cities about perhaps touring with it. Asked why Houston Ballet had waited so long before launching a new production, Welch says: "I just think that Ben's was beautiful. The design was extraordinary. It had become a real benchmark for the company. I think sometimes it's about sentiment. During Ben's time, Romeo was a standout work because it showed the transference of Houston Ballet from a smaller company into this big mega-company. The set and design was huge and world-class.

"I think it suffered a little bit from the fact that other than the leads, there wasn't a great deal of activity for the other dancers."

There have been other adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, and Welch is well aware that not all have been successful -- including one that tacked on a happy ending that audiences despised (although Welch says he believes Romeo and Juliet still died in that production, they just got happily reunited in another world).

Asked why one version is deemed a success and another disliked, Welch laughs and says: "That is the true gamble of all art. I think the city's ready for it. I feel pretty confident that it's going to really look like something fresh and new and there's a relevance in it from the fact of the fighting and the men are so masculine and yet there's a lot of dancing throughout the ballet. It'll be a game-changer for us, too."

Performances of Romeo and Juliet run February 26 through March 8 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 7:30 p.m. February 26 and March 6; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. -February 28; 2 p.m. March 1 and 8. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $70-$195.

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