Wright Center, Samford University, Birmingham, AL; February 22, 2014
“Romeo and Juliet” is arguably the greatest story ballet created in the twentieth century. Its poignancy comes from Prokofiev’s score which effectively blends his brilliant, quirky, and darker dissonances with his talent for luscious melodies. The ballet also has also acquired a rich accumulation of choreography with masterful interpretations by Macmillan, Cranko, and others. For Alabama Ballet’s production, associate artistic director Roger Van Fleteren wisely draws upon these notable versions for a blueprint, but goes on to add and imbue his own lyrical style of choreography.
Catherine Garret and Michael Fothergill are a convincing couple and excellent actors in the title roles. I saw them dance together earlier in the season and I wanted to see more of them. I still want to see more of them. Among the supporting roles, the six ladies who played Juliet’s friends stood out for their lightness and precision, especially in their dances at the Capulet ball. Nukri Mamistvalov played Tybalt with effective temper and villainy, but without becoming caricatured – always a danger with this part. Alexander Forck and Rostislav Dzabraev danced Romeo’s party-crashing friends Benvolio and Mercutio with energy and playfulness. Mercutio is such a fun character that you’re truly sorry to see him go when Tybalt deals the fatal wound in the Act II, even though you know it is coming all along. Mercutio’s death scene has genuine pathos in and of itself and, to me, it also seems to be a fascinating, darker echo of two famous episodes from earlier ballets – the mad scene from “Giselle” and Aurora’s ‘I’m fine, wait, I’m not’ dance from “The Sleeping Beauty”.
When Prokofiev composed “Romeo and Juliet”, he famously (or infamously) changed the ending so that the couple survive and live happily ever after. He argued that “dead men can’t dance, live men can.” But directors didn’t approve the alteration and he was eventually persuaded to switch back to Shakespeare’s tragic conclusion. But the composer had a point, and, in fact, the last minutes of Romeo and Juliet are achieved through silent acting rather than dance. But it proves just as moving as any danced portion in the ballet.
The music which guides the final moments of the ballet is the reprise of a melody first heard when Juliet is introduced to Paris, her intended fiancé, in Act I. Perhaps it could be thought of as a ‘growing up too fast’ theme that appropriately has its most climatic expression in the scene where the consequences of growing up too fast reach their tragic culmination. This leitmotif is bittersweet, but heavier on the sweet. Though its closing arrangement is more anguished than previous versions, the sweetness still beams through and powerfully contrasts with grief expressed onstage. This contrast adds emotional layers to a scene which could otherwise play out in a more one-dimensional way. This concluding piece is a window into Juliet’s thoughts – the joyous memories of her recent romance still madly rushing through her mind as she suddenly realizes that her love story has come to an end. Garrett acted this scene beautifully, without veering into sentimentality or melodrama, which is no small accomplishment. It ensured that the performance ended on an emotional peak.