Balletomanes searching for a new vision of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" found much to savor last weekend in the three Ballet Theatre of Maryland performances of artistic director Dianna Cuatto's newly choreographed retelling of the timeless classic.
At Friday's opening, Cuatto's introductory remarks gave the audience insight into her choreographic task of fusing dance and romantic drama with the antagonism of the rival Capulet and Montague families.
Cuatto's major intent was to remain faithful to Sergei Prokofiev's brilliant score, which Cuatto described as "one of the most poetically breathtaking compositions for dance."
She recalled that when she danced the Juliet role herself, she gained unique insight from a visit by the great Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova who created the role in the 1940 Kirov premiere and was forever identified with it. In fact, of Prokofiev's work, Ulanova famously said, "At first it seemed to us to be 'undanceable,' awkward. One even had to count in order not to miss a bar."
Cuatto has choreographed into her ballet a prologue revealing events foretold by Mab, the Gypsy of Fate who revealed the tragic destiny of the young lovers using tarot cards. The opening scene in a Verona marketplace introduces Romeo and friends Mercutio and Benvolio, who soon begin to quarrel with Lord Capulet's hot-headed nephew, Tybalt.
The addition of these two scenes serves not only to add a contemporary element through the use of tarot cards, but also a fatalistic theme that intensifies the drama. As Gypsy of Fate Mab, ballet mistress Meagan Helman added a vital dramatic element. BTM apprentices Taylor McFadden, who plays the Lovers Tarot Card, and Erica Diesl, as the Death Tarot Card, added mystical elements.
The marketplace scene that follows spins the familiar story speedily, allowing dancers to give a glimpse into their identities. Loyal, courageous Mercutio was strongly portrayed by Brian Walker. Juliet's hot-headed cousin Tybalt was vigorously defined by Calder Taylor, vengeful throughout. Steady friend Benvolio was well danced by Stirling Matheson. Al Kessler expressed a controlling, caring father as Juliet's father Lord Capulet.
Other noteworthy performances were offered by Lauren Boerner, who portrayed Juliet's nurse on opening night, displaying her character's caring and compassion. Lady Capulet was given a multi-dimensional persona by Kathryn Carlson, conveying her allegiances, mercy and final heartbreak at her daughter's death. Alden Taylor impressively danced the role of Juliet's suitor, Paris.
From his very first scene, BTM ballet master Joshua Burnham made a splendid Romeo, creating a young man eager to experience life who soon was awestruck by Juliet. Burnham's Romeo exhibited power at swordplay, restraint, acceptance and phenomenal partnering skills.
Initially, Nicole Seitz portrayed Juliet as a charming, mischievous child playing with her nurse. When she backed into Romeo at the Capulet ball, Seitz's Juliet created a breathtaking pause indicating Juliet had instantly sealed her fate. When her Juliet begins to dance with Romeo, Seitz signals the beginning of Juliet's adult life. Later in the famous balcony scene, Seitz's joyous ethereal Juliet seemed weightless as she sprang into the arms of Burnham's Romeo.
Act 1 ends with Romeo and Juliet discovering their love in perhaps the ultimate romantic scene. Mutual tender trust and youthful sensuality were expressed here with Burnham exhibiting strong partnering skills that included phenomenal two- and three-stage lifts where he seemed to turn Juliet in mid-air, tenderly holding her overhead in one hand. Burnham's Romeo seemed empowered by love in this gorgeous dance that ended Act 1.
Act 2 opens in the marketplace, where Mab tells the fortunes of Benvolio, Mercutio and Romeo. Juliet's nurse delivers a note in which Juliet consents to marry Romeo that day, and Romeo leaves to find Friar Laurence. In Scene 2 Romeo and Juliet are married.
Love and violence are interwoven in the marketplace scene that follows with Tybalt challenging Romeo to a duel and Romeo, now married, refusing to fight. Mercutio accepts Tybalt's challenge only to die when Romeo leads him away. Romeo avenges his death by killing Tybalt. These swordfights are powerful displays of athleticism by every dancer, with Taylor's Tybalt, Walker's Mercutio and Burnham's Romeo most impressive.
Act 3 opens in Juliet's bedroom at dawn after the couple has consummated their marriage, and Romeo prepares to leave. Soon after his departure, Juliet's parents enter with Paris, demanding that she marry him. Juliet refuses and goes off to find Friar Laurence who gives her a sleeping potion that will cause a death-like sleep. Juliet returns to her bedroom and drinks the potion that causes everyone to believe she has died.
At the Capulet family crypt, Juliet wakes to find Romeo dead of poison he consumed believing her dead. Juliet stabs herself with Romeo's knife. These familiar scenes gained added poignancy and power through this magnificent ballet that expressed youthful idealism, pathos, love, death and fate — all intensified by Prokofiev's score.