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Ballerina Traci Gilchrest cleaved to this ever-fix'd mark: One day she would dance Juliet in her most-loved ballet. One of the greatest female roles in dance or drama, it had eluded her throughout her career. Previously she had had smaller roles in other productions of Romeo and Juliet, but had, so to speak, been a bridesmaid and never a bride. As dancers know better than most, timing is everything, and at last the time arrived for her to lead the dance, in a thrilling new production set on her by North Carolina Dance Theatre artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux.
Gilchrest's performance in the premiere in the Belk Theater was a triumph of motion and emotion, and she was well and fully matched, measure for measure, by her Romeo, David Ingram. The lovers' initial attraction, their fast-flowering feeling, their ineluctable trajectory toward death, were all utterly believable and deeply moving. Propelled by the oversized, almost operatic passion of Prokofiev's music, Bonnefoux's choreography for this Romeo and Juliet makes the most of the wide-ranging talents of these and the rest of the company's dancers, and the result, greatly aided by A. Christina Giannini's splendid costumes, is an evening of kinetic, visual and aural magnificence.
Traci Gilchrest is such a formidable stage presence because she appears to be without guile. Certainly she morphs with the roles, but one senses an unrelenting honesty abiding beneath. She radiates an insistence upon facing the truth in each step, and never relies on theatrical stratagems to force our complaisance. This guilelessness allows the 11-year veteran of the NCDT to credibly display the face of an ingénue, and, as the maiden Juliet, it is hard to believe she is a day over 17. I had been skeptical about what she could do in this role, thinking her death-before-dishonor attitude more suited to, say, Antigone. But Juliet has that quality, too. When you clear the ground of the quarrels of men, and the heavens of the mal-crossed stars, Juliet is revealed as mistress of her fate, not a helpless girl unanchored and swept away by love. She chooses her love and her death.
This was but one of many surprises in Bonnefoux's version of the well-known tale. When the story's stripped of Shakespeare's intoxicating language, certain things become clearer. I have not seen another ballet production of Romeo and Juliet that focused so sharply on the deep truths about men and women that course beneath the storyline. Romeo's transformation, for instance, from callow, aimless rich boy to tender, purposeful man seems more definite and complete when conveyed physically. This particular Romeo, with his dazzling prowess and blood-racing attention to Juliet, certainly clarified the reasons for Paris' distastefulness. In his grand clothes, Paris comes only to buy a bride, and even the compelling Sasha Janes cannot garner our sympathy for his mercantile enterprise, when here is Romeo, come to woo and win, to risk and hazard all.
An almost incredible range and depth of emotion were conveyed in mime and movement by Ingram and, especially, by Gilchrest, as her Juliet lived decades of experience compressed into days, further compressed into the minutes of art. Although working without the rich words of the text, the dancers were not without poetry. Bonnefoux's choreography is full of rhymes, not to mention metaphors, foreshadowings, mirrorings, a swooningly beautiful flow of spatial relationships, and — wonderfully — moments of complete stillness. As in the play, the tension builds as single-actor or duet scenes alternate with large group scenes. Following the dramatic logic of the music, which comes to a crashing halt, there's no dribbling on at the end about lessons learned — just the incontrovertible finality of Juliet's death. And as in the film, Shakespeare in Love, when the curtain came down there was a longed, stunned pause before the deluge of applause.
But what of Mercutio, and his foil Benvolio? Can there be a purely kinetic and visual equivalent to the extraordinary wit of Shakespeare's speeches for Mercutio? In a word, yes. Randolph Ward was sharper than his rapier in his interpretation of the role, obviously relishing the dancerly flourishes with which Bonnefoux defines the character, and Andre Teixera was excellent as the jolly Benvolio. We so enjoy Mercutio's reckless, mischievous provocations (and protection of Romeo) that it is even more shocking than usual to understand them as the lever which sets the tragedy rolling to its inevitable conclusion. After his fight with Tybalt, Ward's slim form lies inert in Romeo's arms for a terrible moment before Ingram surges up with volcanic force to slay Tybalt in turn.
Here was another surprise. Tybalt is generally played as simultaneously smarmy and aggressive, but I've always had a hard time understanding why he is such a jerk, or caring that the world was rid of him. However, as danced by the princely Jhe Russell (gorgeous in his red and gold doublet and hose), he became more understandable — and his being more sympathetic makes the story even more tragic. When Romeo kills him (in the last of the several spectacular swordfights), one feels his loss, and when Lady Capulet (Nicholle Rochelle) mourns her nephew, you feel for her, too. La Belle Nicholle revealed an unsuspected acquaintance with the tragic muse in this role. Her performance was perhaps a shade overscaled next to that of Mark Diamond as her husband, but it was in proportion with the music. (I'd like to see her turned loose on Sophocles.) The roles for the Nurse and for Friar Laurence are minimized in this version, but Mia Cunningham was very amusing as the Nurse, especially in the scene where she delivers Juliet's letter, and Joseph Watson exudes quiet authority as the Friar. Innumerable other company dancers, members of NCDT2, and guest artists fill the big scenes with brilliant motion. The ball scene is very rich — but as usual, the sassy ladies in the marketplace have more fun.
In its way, this classic story ballet is as adventurous as any of NCDT's more contemporary offerings, combining as it does some modern movement vocabulary with the romantic form. The company excels in shorter works, but sometimes a huge, long dance artwork like this fulfills a longing you didn't know you had — for listening to a symphony after a year of string quartets and musical snacks, for experiencing a long arc of human story with all its messy passion — and it makes a completely satisfying ending to a very impressive season. This labor-intensive undertaking runs only through the 17th, and to pile on the proof that this is a company of huge talent and elasticity of mind, the second of the three performances has several cast changes, the most amazing of which is that Romeo shall be Paris, and Paris, Romeo. Juliet will be danced by the lovely Rebecca Carmazzi, whose delicate grace will bring out different qualities in her character. (The original cast dances again on the 17th.) The company is also presenting a children's matinee on the 17th and 18th, which means that Jhe Russell will appear as the Sea King in Mark Diamond's The Little Mermaid before dazzling the upper world as Tybalt. The mind boggles.