(Expressing its appreciation for the support of business, Ballet West previewed its production of "Romeo and Juliet" for a nearly full house on Tuesday night. But Wednesday is the public opening, and a review of alternate casts will run on Friday.)
Thanks to Michael Smuin, Ballet West has a big, blooming, rambunctious production of "Romeo and Juliet" with which to open its season, a crowd-pleaser from a Tony-winning choreographer. And one has a feeling that Smuin has come close to Shakespeare as it was probably performed in the 16th century, though its tincture of bawdiness and coarseness may jar modern sensitivities of what this tender and tragic tale has come to mean.
The doomed young lovers are surrounded by taunting, hatred, flaring tempers and intransigence. But again, one feels that the authentic style of an era of bloodshed and violence is well served; and one is left with a deepened sense of the rigidity and danger of those times and of the fine line we still walk on destiny's path, where the slightest mischance may bring about disaster and ruin.
Smuin's choreography, now set for the first time on a company other than the San Francisco Ballet where it originated when he was artistic director, profits from a tightened pace that avoids extreme length and excessive detail. Some of its pantomimes are exceptionally effective in telescoping action: For example, the transistion from the ball to the balcony scene, connected only by a parade of departing guests, or Juliet's desperate dash to Friar Lawrence where she secures the potion - a well-known sequence that needs little explanation. Yet sometimes the jumps are too abrupt, from whooping it up in the square to an ethereal pas de deux, and the wedding scene comes upon us unawares.
Crowd scenes are uniformly well-handled. The ball scene is stunning, bathed in a Renaissance haze of golden light and filled with arrogant dancers who flaunt their precise style with much stamping and haughty display in William Pitkin's beautiful and authentic costumes.
Happenings in the square are likewise brilliantly staged. Seldom have so many fought so much - both men and women enjoying big free-for-alls, from hair-pulling to rapier thrusts by both genders. Fencing is admirably timed and comes off excitingly in Steven White's masterful staging. Yet a little less might be more; these scenes become a little too busy and wearing.
The lovers of Tuesday's performance acted their parts with feeling and danced flawlessly. As Juliet, Rhonda Lee is at the top of her form. Her solos are beautiful and relaxed, her girlishness is unaffected and her emotions develop to a tragic peak.
Raymond Van Mason is a little overpowering physically as Romeo but strong and clean of line, a good actor and a totally dependable partner. Their pas de deux are all fluid line and seamless flow into whose fabric intimidating lifts fit naturally, developing the ideal passion inherent in Prokofiev's descriptive music.
Joseph Woelfel, a new Ballet West artist, dances a captivating Mercutio, filled with the requisite skimming grace and thrusting humor and torment, and Jeffrey Rogers as Benvolio completes a Montague trio of virtuosic skills. Bruce Caldwell contributes a humorless Tybalt of hair-trigger hotness, Pamela Robinson's Lady Capulet is graceful and elegant, and Charles Flachs as Capulet projects lordly intractability.
Bene Arnold adds yet another to her sheaf of Ballet West characterizations as an earthy, gullible, loving nurse. Among other notable vignettes: Wendee Fiedeldey as a delectable Rosaline, and Jiang Qi in dazzling street acrobatics.
Terence Kern wins in his debut as music director of Ballet West on two counts: He takes a pickup orchestra and welds it into a presentable entity (not perfect yet but never less than respectable); and he draws from it, without compromise, the spirit of Prokofiev's remarkable music. And it is, after all, that wondrous score that embodies the romance and tragedy, the color and humor, the dark passions and ethereality that comprise a stirring "Romeo and Juliet" in dance.
With the resignation of several older dancers and others moving on, many new dancers are to be found on Ballet West's roster this season. Yet the company is looking especially competent, individually strong, and well- coordinated and integrated as a group. Recently returned from a successful eastern tour, it will set off on another as soon as its "Romeo and Juliet" performances are over. Ballet West is hailed by many observers as among the country's top five ballet companies. Come and judge for yourself.