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Louisville Ballet Kicks Off New Season With A Worthy 'Romeo And Juliet'

ballet romeo
Sam English, Louisville Ballet

Friday night wasn’t just the Louisville Ballet beginning its 2018-2019 season with a world premiere; it was also the first performance at the Kentucky Center since a June fire closed down the building for what has been a very long summer for staffers and construction workers.

Louisville Ballet resident choreographer Adam Hougland, in his first full-length story ballet, is taking on that most iconic of love stories “Romeo and Juliet.” Having choreographed three Stravinsky ballets, Hougland now turns to the Prokofiev score of 'Romeo and Juliet.' Here, “Romeo and Juliet” is also revisioned; brought into a more contemporary zeitgeist. Hougland is faithful to the framework of Shakespeare’s original, with some necessary omissions and edits, and a handful of additions.

This production of “Romeo and Juliet” is one of the most visually sophisticated Louisville Ballet productions of recent years (together with last season’s Faure’s “Requiem” and another Hougland piece, “Fragile Stasis”.) Partnering with Trad A Burns for both scenic and lighting design, the Whitney stage is transformed into an out-of-time town square, in neutral tones, that could be anywhere in our world today or tomorrow, while also referencing Renaissance architectural silhouettes. Additional locations are suggested by a series of drops that create a variety of spatial relationships for the characters. These spaces are enhanced with bold shifts of color and shadow in lighting.

The opening sculptural tableau is breathtaking, encapsulating the conflict to come together with the luxury of this world.

That luxury is created by the futuristic color palette and fusion of fabrics in the costume design, which also nods to Elizabethan silhouettes, in Christian Squires’ riotous design. The Capulets and Montagues are set apart by their red and blue costumes respectively, while townspeople are in a more neutral palette.

The title roles are danced by Mark Krieger and Leigh Anne Albrechta. They both personify the sense of young – for Juliet, first – love with an explosive energy and exuberance that perfectly sets up the tragedy to come. The “balcony scene” was for me the heart of the evening. Hougland’s choreography, as always deceptively simple, creates an illusion that it’s not formal choreography. Within that construct Krieger and Albrechta consummately appear to improvise these stolen moments together, exploring each other, enjoying their discoveries, luxuriating in their immediate connection.

Albrechta, in particular, carves a powerful arc from playful and willful child – there are some delightful sequences with the nurse (Emily Reinking O’Dell) – through discovering love, committing to Romeo despite her parents, discovering grief, and on into her final choices that result in tragedy for both houses. Hougland’s choreography creates a physical vocabulary for Juliet that starkly differentiates the effect on her body of the draught she takes to appear dead and after she has wounded herself with a knife.

Krieger always brings both acting and dancing skills to his roles in story ballets, and his Romeo is no exception. The scenes with Mercutio (Kateryna Sellars) and Benvolio (Brandon Ragland) are delightfully boisterous, suggesting the devil-may-care attitude of teens without care for consequences. As he falls for Juliet, we see him drift from those ways; and then the turning point is, of course, the death of Mercutio. The subsequent Tybalt-Romeo fight was an impressive pas de deux between Phillip Velinov and Krieger, athletic and balletic in equal measure. Velinov’s Tybalt is one of the most fully-realized characters I’ve seen him dance. One of those necessary elisions in the storyline is Romeo’s machinations to reunite with Juliet; while understandable in adapting a five act play to a three act ballet, it does mean that Romeo’s return in the crypt scene is somewhat unmotivated and he has been absent the stage for several scenes, a challenging prep for this final intense scene.

The Romeo-Mercutio interactions are pivotal to Romeo’s storyline. Here Hougland casts Sellars in a role traditionally danced/acted by a male. Sellars is dynamic as one of the Montague gang, instigator frequently of their pranks. In recent seasons Sellars has danced a wide range of characters, and here she embraces the strength and iconoclasm of Mercutio with gusto. Mercutio’s fight with Tybalt – also athletic and balletic in equal measure – feels dangerous, the audience (even knowing the plot) was metaphorically on the edge of their seats until that final wounding. Sellars’ death dance, both solo and later with Romeo, was both heartbreaking and technically challenging.

The world of the Capulets is the most sybaritic interpretation of their family that I’ve encountered, and is the most overt nod to our contemporary world. What is suggested in Shakespeare’s text, is here made explicit – that flesh is a very cheap commodity; including the marrying off of a young daughter to a man clearly completely inappropriate for her. Justin Michael Hogan’s Paris may owe more to Iachimo in “Cymbeline” than to the original Paris, but he embodies his character disturbingly believably.

The Louisville Orchestra is back with the Louisville Ballet for this world premiere, under the baton of Tara Simoncic, after the final program of last season was danced to tracks.

A new season always brings new elements. New company dancers listed in the program include a couple of elevations from the trainee company, Emmarose Atwood and Hailey Bowles; and new to the company Minh-Tuan Nguyen, Brienne Wiltsie and Luke Yee. Additionally, the Louisville Ballet launched a new-look full-color glossy program (rather than the Audience playbill frequently used by Kentucky Center companies) packed with contextual information for the ballet and luscious photographs of the dancers. Paging through this publication was a great way to start an evening of dance.

The final performances of "Romeo and Juliet" are Saturday at 2:00p.m. and 8:00p.m.

This post has been corrected; the original misstated the score's composer.