"ROMEO AND JULIET," Ballet West, through Feb. 20, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South (801-869-6900 or balletwest.org/events/romeo-and-juliet)
Although John Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet” premiered in Salt Lake City over the weekend, its world premiere took place in 1962. As it's long been dubbed the finest balletic rendering of the classic tale, fans may wonder why it took over five decades for it to make its way into the Ballet West repertoire. It was no small feat, to be sure — to date, only four American companies have been deemed worthy to perform it.
Ballet West has offered up a few “Romeo and Juliet” renditions over the years, but never one so fine as this. Even Michael Smuin’s production, which peppered Ballet West’s seasons a few times in the ’80s and ’90s, pales in comparison.
Leading the dancers in the preview performance were real-life couple Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell, who began their romance three years ago during the filming of a reality TV show called “Breaking Pointe,” which featured Ballet West. Other leads included Christopher Ruud as Mercutio, Rex Tilton as Tybalt, Emily Adams as Lady Capulet and Adrian Fry as Paris.
Sergei Prokofiev’s descriptive, pictorial score summons every circumstance, personality and mood. It has earned its rightful place as a legend with its pounding brass, zest, violence, sexiness and even madness. The Russian composer knew a thing or two about death and doom under Stalin’s regime. He is said to have witnessed betrayal, exile and even execution all around him. He was certainly the right composer for such an epic score, and Ballet West music director Tara Simoncic has proven she is the right conductor to maintain its integrity.
Yet with all the madness, the score never resorts to bloated emotionalism, nor do Susan Benson’s sets and costumes take on the vivid colors usually seen with Shakespeare. Since Cranko uses the collective community to portray the story, it makes sense that the city has been drained of its color, vibrancy and life in the face of a family feud so divisive it is literally laying waste to fair Verona.
Benson’s set is a great gray stone arcade that stands as a framework for the marketplace and the Capulet ballroom. It also serves as Juliet’s balcony, her bedroom and her tomb. Yet the details within this arcade — from the huge gold lion’s head emblem in the ballroom to the softly lit candles in the tomb — are decadent. The costumes, while muted, are also deliciously elaborate. Yet Romeo and Juliet are nearly always seen in simple white.
Sisk as Juliet was magical. Everything she touches — or dances, rather — seems to turn to gold. She sparkled with youthful exuberance and simple delight, exuding sweetness and innocence. Her feather-lightness and jaw-dropping extension, her grace and ease, and her growing musicality were on full display.
O’Connell, tall and handsome with long, powerful legs, seemed a little unsure. While he shone technically, he often seemed stiff and unaccustomed to the spotlight, leaving the audience longing to see more expression and emotion pour out of him. One impactful scene showed evidence of something deeper — as if a window were beginning to open in O’Connell. At that moment, it seemed the dancer’s voice had awakened.
The choreography for Mercutio is perhaps some of Cranko’s best. It requires a high-energy, strong male dancer who can portray a firebrand and a scoundrel in the same instant. Mercutio embodies a mocking tone, danced with almost jesterlike quality, against Tybalt’s arrogant bad-boy flair. Both Ruud and Tilton seemed at the top of their game in their respective roles.
While the leads worked exhaustively and exhibited technical expertise, the company as an ensemble was quite possibly the most striking element. Why such a group-heavy work?
Traditionally, the ensembles in story ballets serve as mere divertissements. In this case, Romeo and Juliet’s kinsmen are at the very heart of the ballet, as if to punctuate the fact that Shakespeare’s tragic tale is about two families, not merely two people. In other words, to understand the plight of Romeo, viewers are taken into his deeply rooted family gatherings. To understand Juliet, they are invited to her tradition-bound family parties.
That’s why it seems very odd, then, that Cranko decided against including the final chapter — the families discovering the bodies and finally understanding the full reach of their senseless feud. There was no reconciliation when the teenagers died in the tomb; the curtain simply closed.
Overall, the ballet made a striking impact. The pageantry, gorgeous music, timeless tale and strong technical prowess of the company — from lead dancer to ancillary character — make Ballet West's production of Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet” an inspired realization of a classic tale.