I’m pretty sure almost everyone in the English-speaking world can recite the synopsis of Romeo and Juliet by heart. Say it with me:
Boy meets girl.
Boy gets girl.
…And one does not, in general, expect grand departures from that script. I suppose you could do it Bourne’s Swan Lake-style:
Boy meets boy (who is, erm, also a swan?).
Things get complicated.
Everybody dies anyway.
…And then you could call it Romeo and Julio, and probably sell lots of tickets to the right audiences, but it would still be the same basic plot, because Shakespeare isn’t (arguably) the best-known playwright in the history of the English language for nothin’.
Anyway, regardless, I don’t really need to explain what happens. You can read the whole play for free on the internet (or watch any of countless film adaptations), and the ballet hews very closely to the play.
So! Lexington Ballet is a small, regional company that manages to do some pretty great stuff on a tiny little budget. Their core company comprises twelve dancers; corps roles are filled from the student company, and community dancers also take roles—C, my partner in crime from Summer Intensive, played both Lord Capulet and Friar Lawrence. He got to dance a swordfight, and y’all, I am so jelly.
Given that it’s a ballet based on a play, acting is of fairly central importance to any production of Romeo and Juliet—and both D and I were, in fact, pretty damned impressed with the calibre of acting on the part of the dancers.
First, I’d like to give a shout-out to everyone who died. Honestly, I found myself actually saying to D, “I don’t mean this ironically at all, but he’s really good at dying!”
In fact, it’s not easy to die convincingly on stage—especially when you’re Mercutio or Tybalt and you’ve just been dancing your brains out whilst trying not to actually murder anyone with your prop sword (yeah, they’re not live steel, but you know what they say about ballet—it’s all fun and games until someone loses an “I” … no, wait, that’s Scrabble; in ballet, it’s “eye”).
Everyone who died did a phenomenal job at it. Like, they died, and convincingly stayed dead without anyone being like, “Hurr, the corpses are breathing!” and remained convincingly limp and lifeless whilst they were poked, prodded, picked up, and occasionally danced with by the remainder of the cast. And, seriously, I intend no irony at all: I really was impressed.
Being dead is hard y’all. (At least, it is for living people. So far, there hasn’t really been much commentary from actual dead people on what it’s like for them.)
As Juliet, Ali Kish does a particularly impressive job of being Not Dead Yet and still dancing (but not appearing to dance, because we’re supposed to think she’s dead) a pas-de-deux with Jake Lowenstein as her grief-stricken Romeo in the final act. She also does a great job being Actually Dead.
Her ability to die convincingly, however, is not the greatest of Kish’s accomplishments.
Simply put, Juliet is a hard role to pull off. Not only does she demand the kind of skill required for any principal part, but she’s thirteen years old, and … well, there’s your problem.
Most of the time, actual thirteen-year-olds aren’t dancing the part of Juliet to Prokofiev’s masterful score. Instead, the role usually goes to someone a little older.
Not everyone, however, remembers what it was like to be thirteen—impetuous but unworldly, part child and part blossoming young woman. This can end badly in any number of ways. Let me count (a few of) them, in fact:
- Manic Pixie Juliet … I’m not sure I even need to explain this one. Which is good, because honestly I’m not even sure I can. Have you seen Elizabethtown? No? I know nobody agrees with me, but I’d say it’s actually worth a seeing at very least for the truly glorious funeral disaster. Anyway. Yeah. Manic Pixie Juliet is just, you know, not right.
- Why Are These Middle-Aged People Still Living At Home? Yes, so the noble single ladies didn’t generally go out on their own and make their way in the world of Shakespeare’s famous play. Still, when Juliet comes across as a middle-aged lady subject to her parents’ TOTALLY UNFAIR RULEZ!!! and marital hand-wringing, it feels sorta weird. You just want to be like, “Surely, at this point, she’s sensible enough to figure out that she could just settle for Prince What’s-His-Face and keep up her thing with Romeo on the side? Maybe even get them to, ahem, join forces? I mean, they’re both pretty cute.”
- Terrifying Lolita Juliet. This is another one I’m just going to put over here for you to parse as you will.
- Excessively Tragic Juliet. Yeah, Juliet is one of the great tragic roles of the Western canon … but she’s also THIRTEEN. Like, think about the thirteen-year-olds you know: they have real, legit life problems—sometimes really big ones—but they still get all squee over those really cute new earrings and whatevs. It is, in fact, entirely possible for Juliet to skew way, way too far into the I AM SO TRAGIC OMG territory. I mean, Emo hadn’t even been invented yet back then (or, well … I dunno; Ben Jonson’s “Song to Celia” [aka “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”] is pretty freaking Emo, though also totes beautiful).
Kish is both a gifted dancer and a gifted actor, and she clearly remembers what it’s like to stand at that incredibly awkward cusp of young adulthood, when suddenly you’re of marriageable age and your parents are like YOU WILL MARRY THIS RANDOM DUDE NOW BECAUSE ALLIANCES (middle school, amiright?).
Okay, so maybe her own lived experiences was not quite that, but at any rate, she fully embodies the complexity of our teenage tragic heroine. Also, wow, holy 6:00 penché, Batperson. And dat cambré.
Ayako Hasebe Lloyd also knocks it out of the park as the Nurse, a role which demands that one first serve as comic relief and then as a sort of pin in the map to tragedy: things go south very visibly for the Nurse right about the time they begin to go south for everyone.
More importantly, in terms of character development, Hasebe Lloyd convincingly portrays the Nurse’s love and sympathy for her charge and her conflict at doing what she believes will make Juliet happiest. Her dancing, crisp and expressive, shifts fluidly from the lightly comic to the deeply moving.
Among the men, Lowenstein plays a very serviceable Romeo, attempting to make peace after his marriage on the down-low and struggling visibly and admirably with the aftermath of his hot-tempered slaying of Tybalt. He is a man caught up in the tides of fate and in the wreckage of his own impetuousity; he is also, unfortunately, not given as much room (maybe literally; the stage at Lexington Opera House is on the small side, which limits the grand allegro pyrotechnics) to develop that role as one might hope for, given his skill as a danseur.
In fact, this production really plays more as Juliet & Romeo—so much of the story happens in the ladies’ end zone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: we get a window into the domestic struggles of the Capulet family, and exciting balletic swordfights are soundly balanced with touching balletic drama.
We see Romeo at his best in the famous balcony scene, lovingly rendered against a backdrop of LED stars: Artistic Director Luis Dominguez wisely leaves in many of the elements familiar to fans of ABT’s version of Romeo and Juliet and makes excellent use of Lowenstein’s considerable skill in partnering. Here, Lowenstein leaps with power and grace through Romeo’s fluid and joyful choreography; in the Love Dance pas de deux, he shines parterning a Juliet who is the personification of delight (and not even Mostly Dead yet).
However, outside of Romeo’s surprisingly-few scenes with Juliet, the men’s portion of the script largely takes place in town scenes that do double duty as balletic placing shots and exposition. There simply isn’t as much room for the men to become three-dimensional people (with the exception of Cal Lawton’s roles—as both Lord Capulet and Friar Lawrence, he is clearly and touchingly a man struggling with his own decisions).
For one thing, they have an unfortunate habit of murdering one-another, which doesn’t really leave them enough time to turn into well-rounded individuals. Don’t blame them, though—blame the Bard, who wrote the book, and Prokofiev, whose score favors domestic scenes and sword fights (and grand battement … I can’t hear the iconic “Dance of the Knights” without my legs wanting to jump straight into grand battement).
In the end, one rather feels for poor Paris, who falls for Juliet, has no idea what’s going on with her, and winds up dead (like everyone else) for his troubles. Littlejohn does much to bring this oft-overlooked role to life: honestly, I had rather forgotten about him prior to this, but Littlejohn’s portrayal of him as an apparently sweet-natured and mystified admirer (with a reasonable expectation of a wedding in the works) makes him memorable.
And lest I overlook the corps, the student company really did some lovely work as an assortment of townsfolk, ladies-in-waiting, knights, and gypsy girls. One never knows what one might get when a student company serves as the corps-de-ballet, but Lexington Ballet’s student company really has its act together.
Lastly: for parents concerned about the violence of this particular ballet, Lexington Ballet’s production (though still riddled with sword-fights and heavy on the Death and Dying) was one of the least violent versions I’ve seen. The version I saw as a small child involved the death of a little girl in a crowd scene quite early on; in this version, no one gets trampled.
However, it’s still a tragic story of star-crossed love, and if you take your kids to see it, you’ll be doing them (and everyone else) a favor by talking about the story (and the importance of tragedy in literature) first.
Oh, really lastly: the music is recorded, but it’s one of the best recordings I’ve heard of Prokofiev’s score (which can, in the wrong hands, be nigh unlistenable in spite of the fact that it’s a beautiful piece and a real masterwork).