Ballet a treat for eyes and ears

The Virginia Gazette

John Shulson

With Valentine's Day weekend here, what could offer a more passionate and flowing expression of love, albeit of the star crossed variety, than Prokofiev's ballet, "Romeo & Juliet," presented by the Richmond Ballet in the Carpenter Center Saturday afternoon. Certainly, the operatic version by Gounod, also to be offered in Richmond by the Virginia Opera in a few days, is sweeping in its own dynamics and a natural for the occasion.

But, for as much as Gounod appeals to the soul, there's something magical about Prokofiev's primary merger of music and movement, without words, that catches the imagination and spirit of the Shakespearean tale. His score combines the emotional highs and lows and tenderness and tragedy of the play into a product that visually brings the text to life. It examines the spirit of youth and steadfastness of the old, passions spoken and withheld, and political and social rivalries among families. A total artistic package, it's no surprise that it's one of the dance world's most choreographed scores.

Here, Richmond Ballet showcased Malcolm Burn's creative concept. The company's artistic associate and ballet master, Burn crafted the work for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1977. The Richmond Ballet premiered it in 1995. It's a highly dramatic dance, effectively broken with moments of tension-relieving humor. Burn knows his dancers and their abilities and artfully shaped those elements in a "Romeo & Juliet" that was choreographically, musically, and dramatically appealing.

The large corps was fully employed in this ballet, the action in which was as appropriately sweeping as Prokofiev's score. In this performance, Valerie Tellmann-Henning delivered a dance that was dramatically secure, portraying, first, the charm of a youthful and shy Juliet finding her first love and, later, one filled with distraught, conflict, and passionate sacrifice. Tellmann-Henning was spot on, taking us along her journey and making us feel her unrestrained joy and depth of despair. Dance-wise, she offered an elegant, graceful figure whose every moment on stage was compelling and complete.

She was ably partnered by the equally convincing Kirk Henning as Romeo. He was stylish and sure footed in his athletic moments, his tender care of Tellmann-Henning touching and supportive. Of course, this perfect pair was made more real by the fact that they are real life husband and wife. The feel of love was palpable, especially when, in the balcony scene, he kissed her and she rose en pointe to his embrace. Sheer magic.

The convincing nature continued through to the end wherein Romeo and Juliet die in the crypt. The choreographic dance of death was riveting and visual, eliciting more than a few sniffles and tears at the tragic close to this tragic tale. It was poignant and poetic.

Superb and effective dancing was also delivered by Marty Davis (Benvolio), Matthew Frain (Tybalt), and Trevor Davis (Mercutio). The scene in which the latter two die, setting in motion the downward spiral of events, was among the work's high points in dance and drama.

Production-wise, this was a lush and visually appealing "Romeo & Juliet," Charles Caldwell's minimal but serviceable sets allowing the action to expand and contract. Allan Lees' period costumes were richly adorned and added color and texture to the effort, as did MK Stewart's lighting design add dramatic emphasis. As for the ballet's intricate swordplay, it was mighty impressive and finely matched musical patterns.

Rounding off this superb production was the Richmond Symphony's flawless rendering of the score, skillfully coordinated by guest conductor Ron Matson. The best of music, movement, stage craft and design combined to make this an emotionally gratifying "Romeo & Juliet" of notable impact.

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