Stuttgart Ballet – Romeo and Juliet

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Berkeley, CA, Zellerbach Auditorium

presented by Cal Performances

March 27 – 29, 2003

Tucson, AZ, Centennial HallApril 1 – 2San Diego, CA, Civic AuditoriumApril 5 – 6St. Louis, MI, Fox TheatreApril 11 – 12Iowa City, IA, Hancher AuditoriumApril 15 – 16Midland, MI, Center for the ArtsApril 18 – 19

Keats said, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," and, while Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet hasn’t quite been around forever, chances are it will be. A joy it certainly is, inspiring composers from Tchaikovsky to Leonard Bernstein, plus painters, playwrights and choreographers down through the years. Perhaps foremost among the latter is the late John Cranko, who originally made his evening-long interpretation on the La Scala Ballet in 1958, with the legendary Carla Fracci as Juliet. Four years later, Cranko presented a reworked version with his own Stuttgart Ballet and Marcia Haydee and Ray Barra in the title roles. Since then, Cranko’s Romeo has become a staple of ballet companies from Canada to Finland to Australia. A rare West Coast visit on the Stuttgart’s current tour (under the artistic direction of Canadian Reid Anderson, a former Stuttgart dancer and Cranko protege) has afforded California audiences a chance to see this work in all its glory, many for the first time.

Set to Prokofiev’s evocative score, Cranko’s version distills Shakespeare’s tragic tale into 12 short scenes, swiftly changing thanks to Jurgen Rose’s wonderfully workable set design. The first, set in the marketplace of Verona where the warring families of Montague and Capulet first come to blows, has the look of a Renaissance painting – perhaps a Paola della Francesca – with the umber background punctuated by the dark browns and bright oranges of the costumes, also by Rose. The outstanding feature of this scene is the swordplay; deftly choreographed to look less danced than real. Here the moody, lovesick Romeo (Filip Barankiewicz at the Berkeley opening) is introduced along with the mocking, quicksilver Mercutio ((Thomas Lempertz) and the imperious, quarrelsome Tybalt (Ibrahim Onal).

With the fall of a backdrop, the scene changes to Juliet’s bedroom where she teases her nurse while her mother brings in her first ball gown. Three casts rotate during the run of this ballet in each city it visits but it’s hard to imagine a more magical Juliet than the graceful, lovely Sue Jin Kang. An exquisite dancer, she also is an actress, starting out as a child at play and maturing into a woman in love and a tragic figure in the space of two hours.

Segue to the ball, where the lovers meet, and then to the balcony where they declare their passion. The balcony scene is the familiar centerpiece of Romeo and Juliet and there isn’t a finer one than Cranko’s around. It is a thing composed of moonlight and young lovers’ dreams. These may be "star-crossed lovers" but both Barankiewicz and Kang have real star power. A final fillip closes the scene when Romeo hoists himself up to the balcony rail for one last kiss.

Act Two opens in the marketplace with a joyous tarantella. It is Carnival and a troupe of mummers enlivens the already-bustling scene. Jorge Nozal danced a particularly funny and agile Mummer King, his antics delighting the audience as much as the townsfolk in the square. But, after the brief, simple wedding in Friar Laurence’s cell, the merry market turns into the site of a murderous brawl. Tybalt enters in a particularly confrontational mood. He challenges Romeo who refuses to fight the cousin of his newly wedded wife, so Mercutio does the honors–a fatal decision but worth it for Lempertz’s death scene, as full of lovable bravado as was his character’s life. Tybalt, on the other hand, flops around the stage like a fish out of water after being stabbed by Romeo’s avenging sword. You can fault the choreographer here because the only thing more melodramatic than that is the overwrought mourning of Lady Capulet (Melinda Witham) who actually rides offstage on Tybalt’s bier.

The story proceeds swiftly from here to its tragic end, the only extended dancing being for the lovers as they part at sunrise in Juliet’s bedroom and, moments later, when they part permanently in the Capulet tomb. Particularly moving was Juliet’s solo as she first fears, then determines to take, the sleeping potion that will make her appear to be dead. High marks to choreographer Cranko for cutting to the chase, eliminating Romeo’s flight to Padua, the business of buying the poison, and the waylaid messenger. In fact, all the boring parts of the original (most of them involving Friar Laurence, who is reduced to a walk on here) are gone.

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