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Grand Rapids Ballet Company

'Romeo & Juliet'

by Steve Sucato

May 18, 2013 -- Peter Martin Wege Theatre, Grand Rapids, MI

Re-envisioning Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet must be a little like trying to re-envision the act of breathing. The story is so culturally ingrained that any retelling automatically carries with it the burden of knowing expectation. Despite this, seemingly every dance season another choreographer adds their dance interpretation to the bountiful Romeo & Juliet’s already out there.

Choreographer Mario Radacovsky took a contemporary approach in his 2011 ballet version of the iconic tale. Patricia Barker’s Grand Rapids Ballet Company closed their 2012-2013 season with the unique ballet at their Peter Martin Wege Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Radacovsky chose to tell the classic tale of two star-crossed lovers in large part from Juliet’s point of view in a contemporary setting as if she were remembering past events and committing her thoughts and feelings in the letter she sends to Romeo in the play before faking her death; a letter Romeo never receives. The ballet set to a mix of Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the ballet and other music, began with that inference as dancer Rachael Riley in the role of Juliet stood on a darkened stage within a circular spotlight looking reflective and haunted as text scrolled across a video screen behind her.

The use of the letter was the first of several parts of Shakespeare’s play that Radacovsky took for granted that audiences coming to see his ballet would have prior knowledge of. To that end, several other key details in Shakespeare's tale were left to the audience to fill in and some characters such Friar Laurence who provides Juliet with the potion to fake her death and to whom her note to Romeo is entrusted, as well as Juliet’s personal attendant and confidante are not found in the ballet. Simply those characters may have not have had a place in the ballet’s modern day setting.

The first act action picked up as Riley was joined onstage by two of Juliet’s female friends in a joyous trio dance marked by crisp, gestural contemporary ballet movement infused with a slew of unique arm positions. Radacovsky’s choreographic style for the ballet appeared somewhat influenced by his background as a former dancer with Nederlands Dans Theater and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

The mood then quickly changed from joyous to nightmarish as Juliet slipped into recollections of confrontations her cousin Tybalt, performed with brooding intensity by dancer Attila Mosolygo and Romeo’s friend Mercutio, danced with instigative comedic flair by Kyohei Yoshida. Riley as Juliet looked convincingly stricken as all around her friends and loved ones slumped dead to the floor in a dark and chaotic scene.

The ballet’s dreamlike state gave way to more tangible memories that followed the chronology of Shakespeare’s story. Laura McQueen Schultz as the domineering Lady Capulet in a long crimson dress in the lead up to The Capulet’s masked ball sought to pair up a blushing Juliet with the suitor Paris. In another unusual twist Radacovsky represented the character as a tuxedo on a rolling mannequin form; perhaps suggesting Juliet’s ultimate disregard for him in her recollections. Radacovsky later filled the stage with several rolling mannequin forms outfitted as men and women who were moved in and out of scenes by the corps de ballet dancers. The mannequin forms symbolic of those in Romeo and Juliet’s lives blind to their relationship and to the events that would lead to their demise.

As one would expect in a story told from Juliet’s vantage point Romeo, danced Stephen Sanford, was all but absent in the ballet up until this point. At the masked ball where only Romeo, Mercutio and their dates wore masks, Romeo and Juliet meet although their surprisingly brief encounter gave little hint to the passion for each other the two would express in the following scene, a love pas de deux set in the Capulet’s orchard that was pure genius. The pair’s hungry entanglements of body and limb, gorgeous lifts and sweeping runs, leaps and slides were mesmerizing. Sanford, although lacking a bit in facial expression, danced the pas marvelously, skillfully partnering the true star of the ballet and of GRBC, Riley who was riveting as the teenage Juliet. Her superb acting skills, emotional vulnerability and ability to dance with a combination of skill and abandon spoke volumes of the character and magnetically drew all eyes, hearts, and minds to her.

The ballet’s second act brought more of Radacovsky’s engaging choreography opening with a group dance in which the corps de ballet swept in waves across the stage windmilling their arms before pairing off with the male dancers engaging in domineering movements that had them wrenching their female counterparts heads and torsos from side-to-side.

After dramatic scenes depicting the deaths of Mercutio by Tybalt and Tybalt at the hands of Romeo, we found ourselves back in Juliet’s bedroom where Romeo laid on her bed beside her while the ghost of Tybalt circled infecting Juliet’s heart and mind with the guilt that her lover killed him.

Another love pas de deux between Romeo & Juliet ensued this time using a pillow as a prop. While the pillow was cleverly used in the pas, it was an example of Radacovsky’s overuse of gimmickry in the ballet that included several lighting and visual effects that came off as forced at times.

The ballet’s climactic final scene finds the pair at the tomb where Romeo has come to be with Juliet whom he believes is dead. Snow falls onstage and the projected backdrop of a large tree that was in bloom when the pair first met has succumbed to the dead of winter. As the familiar story goes Romeo drank a potion to end his life, Juliet awoke to find him dead. Here amidst this haunting and beautiful visual backdrop Riley performd a final emotionally wrought and captivating dance before plunging a dagger into her chest.

Overall Radacovsky’s Romeo & Juliet and GRBC’s performance in it were a triumph. The production, although different from traditional versions, marvelously captured the essence of Shakespeare’s iconic love story and is one worth seeking out for any fan of Romeo & Juliet.

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