Love Story

Last year, when the Houston Ballet was taking a turn through China to impress upon the arts fans of the world's most populous nation that there's more to U.S. dance than the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, one of the works the company performed was Romeo and Juliet. Seeing Ballet Artistic Director Ben Stevenson's take on the oft-interpreted story, a member of the audience in Beijing (as reported by Chinese critic Xiju Dianying Bao) was moved to whisper softly, "It is too pretty, too pretty."

After viewing the Ballet's current production of Shakespeare's tragic romance, it's easy to understand that anonymous patron's response. From dancing to music to costuming to setting to lighting, Romeo and Juliet is indeed beautiful. It's also a fitting conclusion to the 20th anniversary season of Stevenson and prima ballerina Janie Parker. As much as any production in the Houston Ballet's repertoire, Romeo and Juliet showcases the strengths that the pair have used to build up the company over the last two decades.

Stevenson's choreography makes full use of both his theatrical skills and his gentle way with a pas de deux. More intensely felt than Helgi Tomasson's luxe effort for the San Francisco Ballet, livelier than Kenneth MacMillan's version, Stevenson's Romeo and Juliet offers sweep and detail. And in Parker it offers a mixture of youthful enthusiasm and veteran's skill, which combine to create a truly magnificent Juliet.

Though you can almost divide up the wonderfulness of this production between Stevenson and Parker, it would be unfair to ignore others. There's the set designer, David Walker, who gives a grand scale even to intimate places such as Juliet's bedroom, the better to convey the overwhelming forces arrayed against the private anarchy of love. There's the lighting designer, Tony Tucci, who captures the melancholy of early evening as subtly as he does the terrible implacability of the sunrise that forces Romeo to flee.

Carlos Acosta as Romeo continues to impress, though his pairing with Parker can't help but show what he still has to learn. His physical control, the strength of his movements and his sheer princely presence are surprising for a performer so young. But his acting has a ways to go. It would be nice, for instance, if he could express his smitten state in more ways than walking around with head back, hand to heart, looking dazed. Still, he does look like he might have a heart beating in his chest. And what great thighs he's got. And how powerfully he bounds into the air.

The company's other dancers manage to do much more than just hold their own. Dominic Walsh in particular shines as the high-spirited Mercutio, good-natured rather than sardonic in his mockery, a tease who can't -- or won't -- turn serious, even when bleeding to death.

And most of the non-dancing roles -- that is, all the elders -- are performed with conviction. Best are Carmen Mathe as Lady Capulet, beating her breast and lamenting to the heavens over the dead body of Tybalt, and Susan Cummins as Juliet's nurse. Cummins makes the nurse a heartbreaking figure, someone who dearly loves Juliet but must throw her weight behind her charge's parents.

But back to what Stevenson has wrought. The ballroom scene will serve as an example of his theatrical imagination: amber, gold and sienna tones, vast spaces and four lines of men moving downstage, very grand, an imposing phalanx moving in a meticulously executed precession. Each dancer has one hand on his hip, the other hand loftily extended. They pivot, displaying gorgeous capes and broad, implacable backs.

Then four lines of women move forward. The men fade away. There is more stately walking, only now a feminine sway is added.

The men return to join the women, forming a truly forbidding mass of color, swirling lines, power. Sergei Prokofiev's music, swelling and surging, pushes them on, promising doom. The music grows lighter and Juliet enters, looking very young, very delicate and very vulnerable. But she's thrilled to be in the ballroom, a child on the cusp of womanhood. As the scene continues, she and Romeo discover each other, and she sees her world expand. Mercutio acts the scamp, teasing the stiff and pompous Tybalt without mercy. The audience laughs, happy for some relief from the building tension.

It is in some ways the ballet's best scene. But Stevenson is just as good at the private moment, as demonstrated when Juliet gulps the sleeping potion that's supposed to let her mimic death and escape a marriage to Paris, the man her parents have chosen for her. Slowly, as the draught works its way though her limbs, she eases herself to her bed and collapses. She lies there motionless, a crumpled little thing on a great high bed in a vast, empty room. A pale wash of golden light bathes her body. The music grows calm. Everything is still.

The change in mood is wonderful. What makes this work particularly well is Parker, who proves yet again that along with being a dancer of astounding grace, she's an actress of considerable depth. It is Parker who gives the ballet its human, individual side. She offers life, expressed as impetuosity and ardor. Watching her, in fact, is like confronting all the desperate hopes you've ever had, recognizing that huge, churning desires are at work in everyone, only most of the time we never let on. Parker's Juliet lets on.

When we first see her, she's more child than woman, playful and teasing. Romeo's first kiss makes her stagger in astonishment. Parker's Juliet is all feeling and hope, undergirded by courage and determination. That she's also as light and graceful as the transparent cape that wafts after her makes her doom all the more poignant. And the production she heads all the more compelling.

Romeo and Juliet plays through March 17 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue. 227-

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Margaret Putnam