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Ballet At Its Finest With a Stunning and Enlightening Romeo and Juliet from Birmingham Royal Ballet

Courtesy of Virginia Arts Festival

Virginia Arts Festival brought magic to the Chrysler Hall stage last weekend with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Sergei Prokofiev's rendition of the star-crossed lovers has been embraced by a number of choreographers since its premiere in 1938. The work is tremendously popular - almost every major ballet company in the world has a production in their repertoire. The most frequently performed version, and the one mounted at Virginia Arts Festival, was choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan.

MacMillan, who was the artistic director of the Royal Ballet in the 1970s, was drawn to realism and illustrating the stories of everyday people in his ballets. MacMillan’s choreography primarily depends on the principal performers. The lovers’ moments of intimacy serve as focal points in the ballet - these duets, or “pas de deux” (titled “ballroom,” “balcony,” “bedroom,” and “bier”) begin as tentative and electric. As the ballet goes on, they grow increasingly liberal, then desperate and sorrowful.

Saturday’s cast was excellent across the board. Momoko Hirata makes a splendid Juliet. Her expressive face and floating movements capture Juliet’s beauty, youth, and heartbreaking innocence. César Morales is appropriately boyish and seductive as Romeo. Other adaptations of Romeo and Juliet gloss over the unspoken tragedy of Shakespeare’s work: Juliet’s blossoming desire for Romeo was her potential escape from a cold and patriarchal world.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet demands strong acting and movements meant to mirror those of Shakespearean actors. Romeo’s friends propel the narrative forward with their buoyant dances. James Barton’s goofy movements as Mercutio are consistently eye-catching, and Brandon Lawrence makes an expressive and graceful Benvolio. Sinister and regal as Tybalt, Valentin Olovyannikov grabs the skirts of onlookers in distress as he dies. Feargus Campbell portrays the entitled Paris. His Act III duet with Juliet demonstrates his relentless dominance; Juliet’s parents observe in apathy as he lifts her in the air against her will.

Paul Andrews’s visuals for Romeo and Juliet are meant to evoke a High Renaissance painting. Columns and a grand staircase craft a world of tradition, family loyalty, and propriety. Juliet’s bedroom is sparsely furnished and provides ample room for the performers to move with grace. The Capulets and Montagues are attired in opposing color schemes to show their allegiance.

Director David Bintley’s vision and Prokofiev’s dark, majestic, and foreshadowing music provide a sense of impending doom throughout the three-hour ballet. The Capulets’ eerie extravagance in the Act I ballroom scene is particularly chilling. Dancers on the stage move their hands in unison in eccentric gestures; other Capulets on the higher levels by the columns stand frozen in observation. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra tackles Prokofiev’s score with nuance and heart. Their performance in the last scene is particularly lush as hooded figures with candles emerge and complement the dramatic setting.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet features supreme moments of beauty, but also doesn’t neglect the gritty realities of Shakespeare’s text. By the final pas de deux, Romeo maneuvers the lifeless Juliet across the stage in despair, illuminating the lack of autonomy that ultimately led to her destruction.

Virginia Arts Festival has partnered with Birmingham Royal Ballet for many years due to their relationship with former Director of Communications, Keith Longmore, who passed away in 2016. Virginia Arts Festival dedicated last weekend’s performances of Romeo and Juliet to Keith. We certainly owe him a tremendous “thank you” for helping bring Birmingham Royal Ballet’s high caliber works to our region.

Interested in seeing another dance production? Popular modern dance company, Parsons Dance, will perform at the Sandler Center on May 3.

Next up for Virginia Arts Festival is the Virginia International Tattoo, playing April 26 through 29. Virginia Arts Festival also has a number of other exciting performances coming up over the next few months. Visit vafest.org for tickets and to see the full schedule.