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A Healthy Dose of Tragic Ballet
Ballet West Unveils its New Ballet of 'Romeo and Juliet'
 by Karen Anne Webb
Dance Preview:
'Romeo and Juliet'
Ballet West
Capitol Theatre
(50 W. 200 South)
Feb. 10 to 18, 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees on Feb. 11 and 18
Tickets cost $17 to $65
via ArtTix or
355-ARTS or 1-888-451-ARTS.

In choreographing a new version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," Jonas Kåge and his dancers wanted to go deep into the story and its characters. “We haven’t exactly produced a romantic ballet for Valentine’s Day here," Kåge says. "We didn’t want to do the `suite’ or `Cliff’s Notes’ version of the story. We kept the meat of the story line. Really, in the end, the love in the story is more complex than the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets.”

Ballet West unveils artistic director Kåge's world premiere based on the famous tragedy on Feb. 10 at the Capitol Theatre.

Balletic adaptations of "Romeo and Juliet" date back to 1785. However, since the Prokofiev score was first used in a production of the ballet in 1938, most contemporary productions have used his music.

“It’s a beautiful score,” enthuses Kåge, “but it’s very definitely a contemporary score. What’s fun about working with it is that its style opens up the possibility of using such a variety of dance styles: it suggests a larger palette of motions from which to draw than a ballet score written before the last century.

“So, while this production is very much based on a ballet vocabulary, you have, for instance, the earthy, contemporary rhythms of the street scenes and the emotionality of the scene in which Lady Capulet mourns for her nephew Tybalt.”

Kåge says the company management has been looking at reviving "Romeo and Juliet" for a number of years, but wanted to try a different version from the one choreographed by Michael Smuin that has been seen here in previous years.

“Most, though,” Kåge points out, “were simply too big for this company, and, of course, cost was a factor. Company management had been encouraging me to try my own for some time. They’d tell me I could do it because I’d done my own productions of Giselle and Swan Lake.

“But, of course, choreographing a ballet from scratch is a whole different prospect that re-setting a classic! There’s no real `classic’ version of Romeo and Juliet; it’s just too modern. But I’d started my career with this ballet and had danced in a number of productions, so when the idea came up again, I decided to try. I’m excited, but scared!”

Two weeks before opening, at the time of this interview, the last steps of the choreography have just been added. Now, says Kåge, it’s a matter of gluing together all the pieces he and the company have been generating since last July.

What’s different about this production?

On the logistical side, each of the three acts will be prefaced with narrative from the play. Kåge is stretching his dancers by not only giving them fairly meaty choreography but having them learn swordplay appropriate to the Medieval period (including the Florentine sword-and-dagger style) and turning a number of men into sbandieratori, practitioners of the traditional Italian art of flag-waving (which is really more like juggling, only with humongous flags on poles).

On the artistic side, it’s dancier and more sensual than many productions, with a sense of character and emotion more finely integrated into the choreography.

“Romeo is the one role many men want to dance,” asserts principal Christopher Ruud, who grew up watching his father Tom Ruud dance the role for Smuin’s production in San Francisco. “It’s been my dream to dance it.

“This production is a long and difficult ballet, and it’s like being on an emotional roller-coaster to dance Romeo: he’s up, he’s down, he’s in love, he’s tense, he’s upset. Jonas has made Romeo more of an ever-present character than he is in the play.

“Jonas’s approach to choreography is interesting. He lets big, full moments in the music go by with the simplest movements so he lets the music speak for itself. His choreography has fewer tricks than Smuin’s. The movement is all very Jonas. I hesitate to say it’s jazz-esque because it’s based in ballet technique, but it’s very contemporary. Although the music is very programmed so it practically tells you what’s happening at any given moment, this is a completely new production, different from anything else that’s out there.”

The emotional roller coaster image holds true for Juliet, according to Ruud’s fellow principal (and offstage spouse) Christiana Bennett.

“The ballroom scene, where Romeo and Juliet first meet, has to be the catalyst for everything,” Bennett explains, “but for me, the real roller coaster is the third act. It’s unusually long for a third act but is really Juliet’s coup de grace. She has to experience so much: she’s just been married to her true love, and now he’s about to be banished. Her parents are still trying to marry her to Paris; she can’t tell them she’s married, but she can’t commit adultery. She ends up drinking something she hopes will just put her into a death-like sleep rather than kill her, then wakes up in the crypt to find Romeo dead. Juliet gets a break in the second act, where all she does is get married, but it’s like she’s storing up all the emotion to get through Act III. There are at least three times in the act where I’m in tears!”

Ruud has found it satisfying to have the role created for himself and fellow Romeos Seth Olson and Hua Zhuang. (Actually, it’s more than the role of Romeo, as Ruud and Olson also portray Tybalt and Zhuang Mercutio.) Ruud feels Kåge has an unusually keen grasp of the Mercutio character, whom Ruud describes as the anomaly among people “normal” for their time. Kåge’s take on Tybalt is to portray him as something other than “the Devil personified” found in many productions.

Although Ruud says emotionality is inherent in the way Kåge builds his movement, Bennett says she and her cast, especially onstage “Mom” Kate Crews, have spent a considerable amount of time discussing the interrelationships of Juliet’s family.

“I had a fantastic Shakespeare teacher in high school,” she says, “who taught us to examine characters and their motivations. Kate and I have sorted out that Lady Capulet is probably young and beautiful, kind of a trophy wife for Lord Capulet, and that Juliet is the child she was expected to give her husband. Juliet, as a child of convenience, was really raised by her nurse. On the other hand, Juliet is `Daddy’s Little Girl,’ and Tybalt, though her cousin, takes on the more protective role of elder brother. I think our cast’s big strength will be its dramatic depth.”

Alternating with Bennett in the role are fellow principal Michiyo Hayashi and artist Peggy Dolkas. They dance, respectively, with Zhuang, Olson, and Ruud.

“The process of creating the ballet, of having the choreography shared across six leads who are so different, has been wonderfully exciting,” Kåge concludes. “Having a teen myself, I can see what they go through. Once growing up hits them, it can be overwhelming. It’s like a part of their brains—the part that would say `No!’ or `Caution!’—just doesn’t work. And Romeo and Juliet experience so much of life in such a short period. It makes perfect sense to me now why they would kill themselves.

Ballet West’s Romeo and Juliet plays at the Capitol Theatre February 10, 11 and 14 to 18 at 7:30 p.m. with matinees at 2:00 p.m. on February 11 and 18. Ticket prices range from $17 to 65 and are available at ArtTix by calling 355-ARTS (2787) or 1-888-451-2787, at, or at the Capitol Theatre ticket office. The pre-production discussion Warm-ups takes place one hour before curtain before each performance.

Also of Interest:

On February 11, 2006, Repertory Dance Theatre hosts its annual fundraiser. Charette (it means “final push”) allows the audience to participate in the choreographic process when it challenges five choreographers to create five new dance works in record time, and to compete for the title of “Iron Choreographer.” The choreographers will each be assigned a ‘secret ingredient’ to be used in their dance; the secret ingredient could be the use of text, a certain prop, or even tempo instructions from the audience. The audience is invited to watch while the choreographers and dancers work. At the end of the evening, the audience and a panel of judges will award the “Iron Choreographer” title to the most deserving artist.

Tickets for this fundraiser are only $40 (in celebration of RDT’s 40th Anniversary), and can be purchased through ArtTix. The event will be hosted in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.


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