Review: L.A. Ballet finds the poetry in 1955 version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Los Angeles Ballet’s new production of Frederick Ashton’s “Romeo and Juliet” is not only admirable. It’s news.
Ashton ranks among the three or four greatest ballet choreographers of the 20th century, peerless at dance-narrative. However, his distinctively intimate and deeply poetic 1955 Shakespeare ballet had never been danced by an American company until Saturday, when Los Angeles Ballet revived it at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. (Performances in Redondo Beach and West L.A. are planned through June 4.)
For the Record
May 9, 5:25 p.m.: In an earlier version of this review, the headline incorrectly said Los Angeles Ballet was the first to perform this version of “Romeo and Juliet” in the U.S. Los Angeles Ballet is the first American company to perform it here.
The reasons for the work’s neglect may lie in Ashton’s avoidance of the grandiose neo-realistic spectacle dominating popular Russian-style productions. Instead, he kept the work supremely elegant and hyper-classical. Soviet authorities had forced composer Sergei Prokofiev to inflate his score far beyond what he originally intended, and Ashton wisely pruned away some of the bloat, focusing on the doomed lovers through brilliantly inventive step combinations and positions that melted into one another with dazzling fluidity. Even the inevitable storytelling pantomime became transformed by his imagination.
Sustaining the ballet’s style over a three-hour running time would be a challenge for any company, but even when dancing to unyielding and sometimes oppressively fast recorded music, the Saturday cast delivered a powerful affirmation of Ashton’s approach. Major lapses did occur, starting with the impossibly dim lighting in the opening scene. But much of its success can be credited to director Peter Schaufuss, an international star and director of several major companies whose parents danced leads in the original production.
The typically passionate Schaufuss attack was perhaps most evident in Kenta Shimizu’s outstanding performance as Romeo, not only a master of double cabrioles, intricate beaten steps and convoluted partnering tasks but expressions of tragic despair that outclassed even his memorable Albrecht in “Giselle.” As Juliet, Allyssa Bross initially danced girlishly without owning that choreography but soon grew into a persuasive and touching embodiment of trapped, fearful womanhood.
Zheng Hua Li and Magnus Christoffersen served effectively as Tybalt and Benvolio, with Chelsea Paige Johnston giving the Nurse a number of artful character facets. Luke Schaufuss — the latest member of the ballet dynasty — scored a great personal success as Mercutio, especially when dancing opposite Julia Cinquemani in the marketplace scenes. However his death scene (and Tybalt’s) belonged among those moments Saturday when the staging seemed not in control of its effect.
Erik Thordal-Christensen made Paris an appropriate Shakespearean man-of-wax but lacked the stamina for his big solo. His parents, Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary, normally direct this company but here turned up as Lord and Lady Capulet, dancing and miming with authority. Other senior artists included Joshua Brown (Friar Laurence) and David Renaud (the Prince). But it would be wrong to imply that their fine contributions set the seal on the staging — not when the Los Angeles Ballet corps made every marketplace celebration, ballroom ensemble and small-scale divertissement into a revelation of the exceptional detail and musicality of Ashton’s 61-year-old masterwork.
Above all, this “Romeo and Juliet” presented a rigorously stylized vision — one aiming for the same heightened ardor that Shakespeare achieved in the formalized language of the play. It was thrilling to find the company as a whole so impressively Shakespearean and Ashtonian in its steps, stances and gestures.
Borrowed from English National Ballet, Peter Rice’s sets imposed a darkness and architectural rigidity on the exterior scenes and a kind of formless wash on the interiors. More air and light would have been welcome. But whatever its faults, this staging represented the big risk and the crown jewel of Los Angeles Ballet’s 10th season.
L.A. Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet”
When: 7:30 p.m. May 28 at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. June 4 at Royce Hall at UCLA
Info: (310) 998-7782, losangelesballet.org
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