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It's good to have Romeo and Juliet back again at Carolina Ballet, its third appearance in eight seasons. The Prokofiev score, one of ballet's most movingly beautiful, seems to bring out the best in choreographers and CB artistic director Robert Weiss is no exception. He has tremendous empathy with the music, evident in dozens of little moments perfectly matching what the composer so astutely creates. Other choreographers' productions have been more elaborate, more presentationally showy, or more geared to star turns, but Weiss keeps things simple and direct. While he can fill the stage with colorful display (the gypsy street dancers of Act II) or dramatic patterns (the black and gold formality of the Capulet's ball in Act I), the intimate moments are the most impressive.
Weiss makes the dancing seem so natural, eschewing balletic formality for more realistic drama and interaction of characters. Juliet's lovingly playfulness with the Nurse, Mercutio and Benvolio's bravado and carousing, and the several love scenes for the lead characters, all have choreography that emphasizes the story, not the dancers. Yes, the dancers have difficult steps, but they all serve the overall telling of this most romantic of tragedies.
Although it seems strange to say, it's the dancers' acting that makes the strongest impression. The leads on opening night (September 15, 2005) - Timour Bourtasenkov (Romeo), Lilyan Vigo (Juliet), Cyrille de la Barre (Mercutio) - gave deeply satisfying characterizations along with their exemplary dancing. Secondary characters were also finely drawn - Killian Manning's long-suffering Nurse, Marin Boieru's sympathetic Friar Laurence, Julie Janus-Walters' elegantly imperious Lady Capulet (a part she has honed in all three CB productions, including the 2001 revival) and Attila Bongar's quietly noble Paris. While throughout the evening there were emotionally satisfying moments, the entire third act, from the lover's last night together, to Juliet's defiance of her parents' wishes, to the heart-wrenching tomb scene, riveted like theater.
Special mention must be made of the choreography for all the lovers' pas de deux. Here Weiss has dared to use the same combinations in each, a thematic connection that might seem questionable, but one that pays off dramatically in the tomb scene. Romeo can spin with Juliet in his arms, suspend her upside down across his chest and pull her along on the floor exactly as he did in the earlier love scenes, except this time she is lifeless in her drugged "death." That, along with an achingly arresting double death scene (in which the lovers' mimic their last night in bed together), makes this "Romeo and Juliet" one to rival long-established versions.
There is one big problem with the current run, however - the performance venue. The 600-seat Fletcher Opera Theater is usually a fine place to see dance - the intimacy is perfect for CB programs such as Balanchine evenings and new works nights. But for such a grand, fully staged ballet as R&J it doesn't work. The effectively simple settings by Thomas Mauney seem cramped and the scenes with the full cast get muddled, the dancers seeming to hold back because they don't have room to really let go. Even from seats at the back of the theater, many gestures and expressions, necessarily outsized for performances in larger venues, become unacceptable in such a small space.
Overall, the scope of the story and Weiss's presentation of it just don't fit into the confines of Fletcher. There's something about large-cast storyline ballets that demand space surrounding a stage and a certain distance from it (both actual and psychological) to be effective. The company has to schedule performances in Fletcher to get enough venues for their season, but they should confine the productions there to the more intimate evenings. Financial considerations (and the small pit) made it necessary to use recorded music for this run, but the sound system is good and Prokofiev's score makes its points.
Two other pairs of leads alternate over the run. Luckily, Weiss has a strong company all down the line, so whether it's Alain Molina and Margaret Severin-Hansen or Attila Bongar and Hong Yang, audiences will see equally worthy performances.
Addendum: Carolina Ballet - <i>Romeo & Juliet</i> - Alternate Cast - Raleigh - Fletcher Opera Theater Sept. 24, 2005
It's the nature of ballet that a production's run must divide the lead roles among several sets of soloists. The opening night dancers are usually the A-list performers and therefore get most of the publicity from reviews and prime performance nights. It's the mark of a good company, however, to have alternate casts that don't seem second choice.
Such is the case for Carolina Ballet, which, despite its modest size, has an admirable depth of talent. For the Saturday matinee of Romeo and Juliet on Sept. 24, 2005, Attila Bongar and Hong Yang were the leads. It was a tribute to Robert Weiss's guidance that the choreography and the characterizations were amazingly similar to those of Bourtasenkov and Vigo on opening night, and yet Bongar and Hong personalized their interpretations enough to stand on their own merits.
Bongar has come a long way in the last couple of years and this is certainly the culmination of his progress. He confidently executed all his steps and leaps with impressive precision and control. He played Romeo with a quiet reserve, not a wild romantic but a deeply emotional poet. Hong gave Juliet a young, almost naively innocent character, all the more heartbreaking when she confronted mature decisions about life and love. Her dancing was also quite precise and controlled, a good complement to Bongar. Their subtle approach made a nice fit in the smaller confines of Fletcher's stage.*
Edgar Vardanian was a darkly menacing Tybalt and Wei Ni found an ingratiating, gentler character for Mercutio, although the taxing choreography pushed him to his limits. Pablo Javier Perez, as Benvolio in both casts, continues to impress with his apparently boundless energy and his ability to finish off his moves with such flair.
*Note: the stage dimensions at Fletcher are three feet less wide and three feet less deep than at Memorial.
Addendum: Carolina Ballet "Romeo and Juliet" - 2nd Alternate Cast Oct. 1, 2005
Seeing yet a third couple in the lead roles of Carolina Ballet's Romeo and Juliet provided a rare chance to observe how a production varies with changes of casts.
Alain Molina and Margaret Severin-Hansen were the most presentational of the three pairs, both using their bright personalities to connect more directly with the audience. Both deployed the steps Robert Weiss had choreographed, but gave them a slightly different spin.
Molina brought a vivid focus to his combinations and partnering. After some tentativeness early in Act I, Molina displayed marvelous energy and speed in his turns and leaps during the rest of the afternoon, especially in the balcony scene. He approached the acting in a more generic way than either Bourtasenkov or Bongar, his use of more traditional balletic gestures and expressions giving the intimate scenes somewhat less impact. But Molina's handsome demeanor and stage presence were appropriate elements for Romeo.
Severin-Hansen lit up the stage with a thousand-watt smile and appeared to float like a thistle, her springy energy a good match with Molina's. Her balance was awe-inspiring, her arabesques held just that extra moment to catch the breath. She gave the little moments, such as the shock of Romeo's first kiss, an endearing humor, although she, too, played these more on the surface than from within.
Nonetheless, this was a satisfying performance, the audience cheering as enthusiastically as with the other casts.
For this performance, Pablo Javier Perez danced Mercutio, a natural fit with his stage-filling personality and solid confidence. It also must be noted that throughout all three casts, Margot Martin had admirable consistency as the lead gypsy street dancer, sensuous and beautifully controlled.