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Romeo and Juliet

Boston Ballet Company

November 3–13, 2011

Boston Opera House

The curtains rise and we see a young girl teasing her nurse, pushing her this way and that, pulling at her dress, running circles around her. The girl turns shy when her mother walks in, but then can barely contain her excitement when she is given a lovely new dress to wear to her first big party.

Boston Ballet’s presentation of Romeo and Juliet is a powerful and sensitive telling of the familiar Shakespearean tale. To render the tragic story, this production beautifully combines Sergei Prokofiev’s score with John Cranko’s choreography and sumptuous costumes with impressive lighting and sets.

Set in 15th-century Verona, Italy, the plot follows the forbidden love between the daughter of Lord Capulet and the son of Lord Montague, whose families are bitter rivals. Juliet is betrothed to Count Paris, but falls in love with Romeo at a party and then secretly marries him. All would be well if the story ended there, but Juliet’s cousin Tybalt looks to quarrel with Romeo. Romeo refuses to duel, so his friend Mercutio takes his stead and is killed when Romeo tries to intervene. In remorse, Romeo then fights Tybalt, takes his life, and is banished from the city. Before he goes, however, he spends his final night with Juliet.

The following morning, when Juliet learns that she is to marry Count Paris the next day, she enlists Friar Laurence, who previously wed her and Romeo, to help her out of her predicament. To buy her time, he gives her a concoction, which makes her fall unconscious and appear dead. He sends a letter to Romeo, telling him this deathlike state is only temporary, but the letter is never received. Believing his true love dead, Romeo rushes to Juliet’s tomb and kills himself in his grief. Awakening with Romeo dead beside her, Juliet follows suit.

It is striking how a story filled with so much violence and anguish can be told through an art form as delicate and graceful as ballet. Yet this is skillfully achieved, as the elegance of the dancers’ movements complements the passion and energy of the characters they portray.

One particularly memorable scene is the masked ball, where dancers, resplendent in gilded headdresses and glitzy masks, with gold peeking from their flowing robes, waltz to Prokofiev’s imperious music. In this scene, the lovers first set eyes on one another and we clearly see Juliet drawn away from her betrothed towards Romeo, her petite figure balanced delicately on tiptoes, her feet moving like the fluttering of eyelashes.

In another poignant scene, Romeo goes to Juliet’s balcony in the moonlight to declare his love. Before leaving, he hangs on her balcony and pulls himself up to kiss her through the stone railings. Later, as the events take a graver turn, Juliet drinks Friar Laurence’s elixir and drags herself onto her bed, her outstretched hand trembling wretchedly.

Surprisingly, the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, killed amidst a crowd of villagers during their duel, are more dramatically depicted than those of the lovers. In other versions of the ballet, the deaths of the two lovers overwhelm the third act, with Romeo prolonging a dance with Juliet’s limp body. In this version, the ending is so brief that the audience feels jolted by the swiftness of the dancer’s actions. The lovers die together in a few graceful movements, leaving the stage absolutely still.

As the curtains lower, you are left a little mournful, a little startled, and in awe of the tumult of emotion expertly conveyed by the company’s dancers. As the lights turn up in the opera house, it feels as if you’ve just put down a great book or finished an epic movie. It makes for a rich evening of entertainment, and a refreshing getaway from campus bustle to romantic and tense 15th-century Verona.