Fort Worth — No one thinks twice that a Shakespeare play could be transformed into a wordless ballet, but if one were to think about it, it’s a daring and formidable feat. Ben Stevenson’s ballet version of Romeo and Juliet, which opened Friday night at Bass Performance Hall by Texas Ballet Theater, captured the essence of the tragedy with a fresh vitality.
The story unfolds with an implacable force, perfectly suited for the pace of the action: everything takes place in the span of what? Five days? It is that speed that makes the tragedy all the more poignant of youths discovering love for the first time, marrying in secret and dying in each other’s arms.
But to frame the tragedy properly, we must first witness youth’s carefree exuberance, and that Texas Ballet Theater provided in abundance.
That comes early, in the opening scene in the marketplace, where Romeo and his friends Mercutio and Benvolio cavort with saucy harlots, and Mercutio playfully mocks the uncompromising Tybalt. Mercutio, played with delightful charm by Thomas Kilps, has an antic spirit, and Tybalt (Alexander Kotelenets) is a perfect foil. Mercutio nuzzles Tybalt’s head, butt-bumps, dangles whatever is at hand and turns his foe around with unending glee.
And then there are the three harlots, dressed like gypsies in tattered skirts and with ribbons in their hair, who sweep and swirl with wanton abandon, enticing Romeo and his friends for a romp. Later, Tybalt finds the harlots loitering in front of his imposing house, and shoos them away. Once he leaves, they wickedly mimic Mercutio’s mocking antics, getting their own revenge on Tybalt.
There’s also our first glimpse of the 14-year-old Juliet in her anteroom, the picture of a girl on the threshold of womanhood, not quite ready for what is in store. She scampers about like a frisky colt, playfully tormenting her long-suffering nurse. (As the Nurse, Anna Donovan just about steals the show, no more so than when she slowly slides into a heap next to Juliet’s bed, believing that her beloved charge is dead.)
Juliet metamorphoses pretty quickly from free spirit to reluctant and shy object of Paris’s attention at the Capulet’s ball, and then again into dazzled amazement with her first encounter with Romeo. The minute Romeo appears in the now empty ballroom and Juliet from the other side, the two gaze into each other eyes and time stands still. Later, standing on her balcony and looking wistfully into the heavens, she barely hesitates to run down the staircase to join Romeo, who has swooped in with his long black robe fanning out. Juliet approaches Romeo fearfully, and then ultimately, as he lifts her high overhead, caresses her face and slides her to the ground, gives in to rapture.
Other scenes are just as vivid: the brawl between Capulets and Montagues in the first act, the sword fight between Mercutio and Tybalt (Mercutio goes to his death with bravado), and the glorious ball. That opening scene is magnificent: men in heavy gowns and women in long, trailing skirts fan out in neat rows, moving with stately grace and just the simplest of steps, perfectly capturing Prokofiev’s majestic music.
But this is Romeo and Juliet’s tale, and Carolyn Judson as Juliet captures all of her innocence, budding love, terror and despair with disarming ease. As Romeo, Lucas Priolo is almost more the prince than a teenage rebel, but his tender encounters with Juliet ring sincere.
Tony Tucci’s lighting, David Walker’s atmospheric sets and grand costumes added to the rich scope of the ballet. All that was missing was live music.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine