William Shakespeare’s tale of starcrossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, continues to live and to be reimagined throughout the years, because of the beauty of the tale and the timelessness of the young lovers and their passionate commitment to each other. Everyone knows the story, and every theater company and dance troupe produces the appropriate adaptation in their arsenal. But you’d be hard-pressed to see a more exciting version of this ballet. With a stunning and majestic set, sumptuous costumes, and simply the best Juliet anywhere, the Carolina Ballet’s version of Romeo & Juliet opened to a full house on Thursday, Feb. 1st.
The curtain rises to the strains of Sergey Prokofiev’s music commissioned specifically for the Soviet Union’s ballet company’s version of the well-loved story. Few realize that the work was created during the Great Depression, when the world dearly needed art, dance, music, and literature to cushion them from the painful realities of their daily lives.
The composer himself missed the joy of the first performance of the full ballet in Czechoslovakia’s Mahen Theater, because he was restricted from freely leaving the country. However, Prokofiev’s original one-act construction of the ballet was significantly changed by the next choreographer, Leonid Lavrovsky, when he presented the ballet in Leningrad in 1940. The Lavrosky version is the one with which most ballet audiences are familiar.
But the choreography for the Carolina Ballet’s version belongs to its founding artistic director, Robert Weiss. Though the ballet’s beauty largely relies on the dancers to impart the story to the audience, if not for the breathtaking choreography, the tale would fall flat. Weiss’ vision for the ballet appears to be to highlight both the innocence of the two lovers by creating pas de deux for them that are challenging, acrobatic, and physically beautiful, while incorporating well-cast dancers for the supporting cast who can play the other recognizable characters in the story. His genius is evident in this particular ballet; and though there are some first-night jitters, and even some falls, the choreography itself is the star of the evening.
Opening in the marketplace in Verona, the rich strains of Prokofiev’s familiar music fills the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater as the Montague and Capulet families skirmish amid iconic Roman columns where groups of peasants and locals dance. The backdrop is one against which Romeo (Marcelo Martinez) attempts to tell Rosaline (played prettily by Sophie Nelson) of his love, but as soon as the two families start brawling around him, his romantic nature is quelled.
We are introduced to most of the main players in this scene: Benvolio (Maxmilian Isaacson), Lord Montague (Manuel Barriga), Lady Montague (Sara Roe), Tybalt (Yevgeny Shlapko), the Prince of Verona (ballet master Dameon Nagel), Lord Capulet (Oliver Béres), Lady Capulet (Lara O’Brien), and Mercutio (Nikolai Smirnov). There are several standouts in this group who become even stronger personalities as the well-loved story continues. We expect a lot of these dancers simply because their parts are so well-known, so when they bring the character to life and dance as if their lives depend on it, that level of commitment and expertise makes this ballet shine.
Nikolai Smirnov’s aggressive leaps and boyish charm create a Mercutio that is as much a trouble-maker as he is a teenage boy who wants nothing more than to have fun, while Lara O’Brien’s ability to reach into the audience with a well-timed glance bodes her well in the Lady Capulet role. When she throws herself on the floor as her nephew Tybalt dies, her agony is palpable. Dressed in rich golds and blacks, she (as well as the other nobles) depict the irony that grief and heartache reach into the houses of the wealthy while the servants and peasants watch with horror.
Yevgeny Shlapko’s Tybalt is such an on-point (forgive the pun) characterization that even without the interaction with other dancers, one would know that he truly is Romeo’s short-tempered rival. His dancing is strong but his acting and sword-fighting is so believable that he becomes the unlikable villain Shakespeare meant him to be.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum is Lindsay Purrington’s Nurse, the lovable and comical old woman who cares for her charge, Juliet, as if she were her own. It’s difficult to portray these characters with sealed lips, yet Purrington still manages to arouse some laughter during her on-stage antics.
The female dancers who portray gypsies (Amanda Gerhardt, Courtney Schenberger, Lily Wills, and Alyssa Pilger) are both exotic and forbidden, using their skills to temporarily disrupt the rival gangs in favor of sharing some sensual delights. Pilger is exceptional as the gypsy fortune teller, dancing a solo that spotlights her ability to fouette and pirouette. It’s a quick dance with sharp, precise moves that demands the technique of a principal ballerina.
However, the stars of the evening are Romeo (Marcel Martinez) and Juliet (Margaret Severin-Hansen), as well they should be. Martinez, dark and mysterious in his other roles, seems to occasionally struggle to maintain a young, smiling Romeo; but his dancing is phenomenal. Few can compete with Martinez’s power, his effortless lifts, and commanding stage presence. He has great chemistry with Severin-Hansen, providing a believability to their love story, but he’s an even better partner; and their pas de deux literally take your breath away. Here’s where Robert Weiss’ choreography comes to life, with the two lovers celebrating their newly found romance in brilliant, heart-pounding lifts and sweeping moves that prove he’s a cavalier on par with the incomparable Severin-Hansen.
Margaret Severin-Hansen has been dancing the Juliet role for 20 years, yet she manages to bring a lightness and innocence to the role as if she were 14 years old, as Juliet is herself. In your mind, you can hear her giggling, and in the scene where she discovers her Romeo, now her husband, dead, you can physically hear her heartbreaking sobs. The two are perfectly partnered for their roles, and it is obvious that her abilities to fly through the air as if she is made of gossamer create the moments for which balletomanes await. The final pas de deux the couple dances before their untimely deaths is painfully exquisite, and one must offer kudos to both Marcelo Martinez and Margaret Severin-Hansen, as well as to Robert Weiss, who has created such a heartfelt and complicated piece.
Yes, Shakespeare’s tales will never die, since they are the stories of romance and passion and the silly battles humans wage, but when put to dance, the tales become much more than that. This Romeo and Juliet creates an artistic moment that simply must be experienced. Fall in love with the starcrossed lovers once again, but this time, fall in love with the Carolina Ballet as well.
The ballet will run until Sunday, Feb. 18th, plenty of time to grab your favorite Valentine for a romantic evening that cannot be replicated anywhere but with Robert Weiss’ stellar ballerinas and danseurs.
The Carolina Ballet presents Prokofiev’s ROMEO & JULIET at 8 p.m. Feb. 2, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 3, 2 p.m. Feb. 4, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 10, 2 p.m. Feb. 11, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 17, 2 p.m. Feb. 18 in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $32.15-$91.15, except $20 per ticket for college students with ID and free to high school students with ID. Click here for details.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/836166.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-719-0900 or http://www.carolinaballet.com/get-tickets/group-sales/.
2017-18 SEASON: https://www.carolinaballet.com/program/2017-2018-season.
Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64, a.k.a. Romeo i Dzhulyetta (1938 ballet): https://www.britannica.com/topic/Romeo-and-Juliet-ballet-by-Prokofiev (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romeo_and_Juliet_(Prokofiev) (Wikipedia).
Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev (Russian composer, 1891-1953): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sergey-Prokofiev (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Prokofiev (Wikipedia).
Robert Weiss (Carolina Ballet‘s co-artistic director and choreographer): http://www.carolinaballet.com/pages/staff-directory-entry/robert-weiss (Carolina Ballet bio) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Weiss_%28choreographer%29 (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.