‘Romeo and Juliet’: Perfect Valentine’s Ballet, to See with a Guy Too …

The American Ballet Theatre brought the perfect ballet to the Kennedy Center for Valentine’s week: “Romeo and Juliet.” Perfect not only because its tragic love story is one of the best known of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. It’s the stirring, powerful, poignant music of Sergei Prokofiev plus the many all-male dances in the three-hour production, that make it the perfect ballet for men and that first ballet to take a young son or nephew.

There is drama in every scene. The sets for the multiple acts are sumptuous, usually full stage: an elegant spacious ball room where Romeo and Juliet first meet; the balcony scene complete to every imagined detail including not being quite low enough for the ill-fated lovers to touch; a town square against a backdrop of palace staircases and gardens, where a lot of light-hearted community dancing take place, as well as fighting. In this ABT version, even some of the ladies take part in the punching — until it turns tragically deadly between the two social tribes of the town. 

The costumes for most of the cast are realistic of the times. Many of the towns-women wear long dresses and small heeled shoes. There is not a classical-ballet tutu in sight — although the main male dancers perform in tights to better see their often breath-taking spins, leaps and complex spectacularly choreographed sword fights. There are light moments too — where even the packed sold-out audience in the Kennedy Center Opera House could let out a light laugh: the innocent Juliet in her first scene as she tries to hide with her doll behind her large trusted nanny as her father introduces her to the man he has chosen for her to marry; and her fantastically smooth, fast and almost motionless flight backwards on toes as she propels herself away from uncomfortable situations. 

And, of course, there is the tear-inducing eye-wiping dances of utter passion, love and grief as the tragedy plays out — a Shakespearean epic played on stage without a word spoken. Only the masterful choreography and dancing. And above all, Prokofiev’s composition, that glorious music where even the most happy moments (the ball, the teasing among Romeo and his best friends, the village market scenes) are almost all dominated by minor tones and keys. It is a tragedy, after all.

Prokofiev agreed to compose this Romeo and Juliet as his homecoming gift to his native Russia (then the Soviet Union) in 1936. His original version had a happy ending – the priest prevents Romeo from killing himself and Juliet suddenly awakens from her potion and they run off together. But the ballet got twisted up in the politics of Stalin’s Great Purge and when it returned in 1940, parts had been altered including the tragic ending. (The ABT version ended with their deaths; leaving out a funeral scene of other versions that brings the two families tragically together).

The music is basically the same in all versions, but the steps and staging are in no way the same,” ABT artistic directors told The Georgetowner. “There is no standard Ballroom Scene sequence or any other standard scene. We do Kenneth MacMillan’s production of the ballet ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and the ballet is choreographed by MacMillan from start to finish.”

Romeo is on stage almost the whole production  a physical challenge. The principal dancers are different each night. On Wednesday, Feb. 15, Romeo was danced by Aran Bell who was born and raised in Bethesda. He started dancing at 4 years-old, studied variously at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and then in Rome, Italy, New York City and Florida and spent several summers at the Royal Ballet School in London, and at ABT’s Summer Intensive. He started as an apprentice with ABT in 2014 and was promoted to soloist by 2020.

The American Ballet Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Kennedy Center runs through Feb. 19.



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