Pennsylvania Ballet opened their 55th season with a strong production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet. Scored to Serge Prokofiev’s brilliant ballet score, MacMillan created this version of R & J at the Royal Ballet in 1965 and it stands as a contemporary story ballet masterpiece. PABallet artistic director Angel Corella, in his fifth year running the company, makes this production a glittering showcase for his new roster of corps dancers, star principals and soloists. Corella ambitiously continues to rotate several casts in the lead and supporting roles. Playing those doomed lovers on opening night were Principals Sterling Baca and Lillian Di Piazza are in a word, luminous.
MacMillan’s choreography requires interpretive acting and consistence technical artistry, by all of the lead dancers. This vital level of performance is established from the first scenes in the opening night performance. Much credit goes to the detailed staging by Julie Lincoln and Robert Tewsley. There is, indeed, plenty of ballet classicism, but MacMillan doesn’t implant rote balletics that can be virtually interchangeable (something Balanchine didn’t hesitate to do) in different story ballets.
The houses of Montague and Capulet are sworn enemies in Verona. During a bacchanalia in the town square they taunt each other things get out of hand, swords are drawn and bodies start to pile up. Jermel Johnson brings full gravitas to Exacalus, radiating displeasure at the warring families and gets them, to lay down their swords. Meanwhile, this scene has some of the most thrilling sword fight choreography you will see in any ballet.
Of course, the rivalry reignites when the three masked Montagues crash Juliet’s coming out party, where she and Romeo dance and instantly fall in love. Meanwhile, Lord Capulet has arranged for Juliet to marry Paris, a young nobleman.
In the key supporting roles, soloist Albert Gordon turns in a defining performance as Mercutio. He is the rakish leader of the Montagues, looking out for his best pals Romeo and Benvolio, who is equally charming as performed by corps de ballet member Jack Sprance.
Principal dancer Ian Hussey is the protective and brutish Tybalt, a nephew of the Capulets, ready to fight anyone in his path and tries to keep Romeo away from Juliet. Hussey’s steely performance is pitch perfect and so is his every move.
Later back in the town square, Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt, to keep the peace, since he is now secretly married to Juliet. Mercutio, incensed at Tybalt’s taunts picks up the sword and challenges him. When Romeo tries to intervene, Mercutio is wounded. He staggers about, tries to make light of his injury and before he collapses points to the rival families and dances the equivalent of “A plague on both your houses.”
Di Piazza is perfection both as the dutiful young daughter, clutching her doll and hiding behind the skirts of her nurse, but she grows up fast after falling in love and can’t abide being away from Romeo. Company apprentice dancer Pau Poul makes the most of what can always be an invisible role as the spurned Paris. Also making the most of gestural character roles are PAB’s ballet master Charles Askegard and corps dancer Marjorie Feiring as Lord and Lady Capulet
MacMillan keeps the corps dancers animated with dance and character business in and the ensemble dances are top-notch in every act, from the noble court dance processional to the ensemble of six ballerinas, Juliet’s friend, in their elegant precision ensemble configurations. Their counterparts, the ensemble of men with mandolins, are equally charming. There is comic relief along the way, drinking games and bawdy seductions by the town Harlots and at one point the gents are hidden in shredded ribbon outfits twirling like fire dancers, led by a hot acrobatic aerial solo danced by Peter Weil.
Of course, the center of the ballet is the doomed love story enacted by Baca and Di Piazza, and rising and falling on their partnering chemistry and combined artistry. Baca’s tours en ‘air have command and ballone (and the occasional ragged exit) and most importantly he is always the most attentive partner, never hydraulic in his lifts, for instance. These qualities are crucial within MacMillan’s aesthetic which requires equal lyricism and expression from both dancers. On top of her thrilling pointe work, and diamond hard arabesques, Di Piazza’s Juliet captivates from start to finish. At one point she drapes herself over Baca’s back in a precarious inverted position and is just held there, just one of the breathtaking moments in this couple’s performance.
The opulent sets and costumes by Paul Andrews, is so gorgeously suited for Philadelphia’s historic Academy of Music. This production also marks maestro Beatrice Jona Affron’s 25th season as PAB’s musical director and it is cause for celebration just to hear her masterful interpretation of Prokofiev’s brilliant ballet score. Affron brings full dimension to this score, from Prokofiev’s blazing horn heralds, and at the other end of the sonic spectrum, the aching, tender violin passages performed by soloist Luigi Mazzocchi.