We had arrived at the penultimate moment of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy of doomed love.
On a recent afternoon in the mirror-lined, high-ceilinged, ground floor studio in the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity, a small audience watched dancers enact the final moments of the star-crossed lovers’ lives.
Juliet had consumed a potion that led everyone to believe she was dead and had been laid out in the family tomb, her body strewn with flowers. In came Romeo, who believed he had lost his beloved forever.
At this point William Whitener, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, leaned over, chuckled and whispered to a visitor: “This is the second time this season that people were pronounced dead who weren’t.” He was referring to the ballet’s world premiere of “Tom Sawyer” late last year, which also contains a faked death.
The rehearsal continued: Romeo, danced by Luke Luzicka, was so distraught that he produced a knife and took his own life. Then Juliet, performed by Angelina Sansone, awoke, realized that her true love was dead, grabbed the knife and snuffed out her own short life.
The dancers were rehearsing the second KC Ballet production of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo & Juliet” since 2008.
Ib Andersen, Whitener’s counterpart at Ballet Arizona, choreographed the first Kansas City production of the piece during a three-week rehearsal. This time, Andersen and his assistant Maria Simonetti came in for one week to restage it quickly. Then it was up to Whitener and his staff — ballet master James Jordan and ballet mistress Karen P. Brown — to polish it for performance.
In 2008, an interviewer asked Andersen why he chose to choreograph Prokofiev’s famed ballet when there were already so many versions by other choreographers. His answer was straightforward: He wanted to create a “Romeo & Juliet” for smaller ballet companies because it’s a title that always sells well, and so is vital to a ballet company that’s serious about building and expanding its audience.
Whitener said Andersen knows of what he speaks.
“A lot of people are familiar with the score and the play, and so it’s had a wide exposure,” Whitener said. “Most of us read it in high school and I believe it’s still probably required reading and the Prokofiev score has been widely heard as one of the most popular classical compositions.”
One reason for its popularity is that Prokofiev kept recasting it. The ballet was not performed until 1938, but Prokofiev already had written two orchestral suites based on the ballet as well as 10 piano pieces. Later he wrote a third symphonic suite.
Amazon lists scores of recordings, from excerpts and highlights to the suites and the complete ballet score, as well as a DVD of the 1966 film documenting choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s well-known version with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.
Andersen has called his choreography “technically challenging,” and neither Whitener nor the dancers disagreed.
“The choreography is complex and character-driven, and the partnering is intricate,” Whitener said. “The solo variations have quick changes of direction but overall the movement has abandon, because Juliet and Romeo are young and reckless and impassioned, so that informs how a dancer approaches the technical work.”
One big difference between this production and the earlier one in 2008: This one will be in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The 2008 show was staged in the cavernous Music Hall, the only local theater appropriate to the scale of the production. But the Muriel Kauffman Theatre in the Kauffman Center offers a relatively intimate viewing experience no matter where you sit.
The roles of Romeo and Juliet are arduous, so the ballet is employing two Romeos and two Juliets. Luzicka, who performed in the 2008 production, and Sansone will dance the title roles in alternating performances with Kimberly Cowen, who danced Juliet in 2008, and Anthony Krutzkamp.
“The way (Andersen) put it is, it’s damned hard,” Luzicka said. “It’s definitely challenging, but it’s not like big, huge jumps. It’s tricky more than really, really hard — apart from stamina. You’re really kind of dead after the first act.”
Cowen said it’s Andersen’s sense of abandon that makes the choreography difficult.
“If you truly try to achieve what he’s asking, it makes the actual steps harder,” she said. “If you do a little more conservatively, then it’s not so difficult. But if you do what he wants, then it becomes very challenging.”
Sansone said Juliet is not the most technically difficult role she has performed, but it does pose challenges: “It’s a lot of acting. He does ask lot of you. He asks you to move big. He asks you fill up the whole room.”
As you might expect, the two Romeos and two Juliets watch each other in rehearsals and frequently compare notes.
“From a girl’s point of view, everyone wants to be Juliet,” Cowen said. “It’s a pretty special achievement. So in a way you get really close with each other. It means so much to Angelina and myself. We’re constantly talking to each other.”
Krutzkamp has a different view. “His take and my take are different, which is just fine, but I can trust him to tell me if something is coming across the right way. You can dance well, but if you don’t move (the audience), what’s it worth? It’s about what makes you look better.”
“Romeo & Juliet” in its many variations remains a perpetually popular story. Shakespeare seems to have captured universal truths about the self-absorbed nature of adolescents experiencing the first lightning bolt of that hormonal eruption of emotional longing and physical attraction that we, for lack of a better word, call love.
Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie became a box-office sensation, and Nina Rota’s love theme became a radio hit. Twenty-eight years later, Baz Luhrmann’s modern adaptation tapped into a Generation X audience. There’s always room, it seems, for one more take on “R&J.”
But Cowen thinks there’s something unique about the ballet version of “Romeo & Juliet.”
“There are parts of the story that everyone can relate to,” she said. “But as far as ballet stories go, it has a definite feminine side and a definite masculine side, whereas many ballets have more of a female orientation, with girls turning into birds and that sort of thing. And the music is off the chart. Amazing. Even somebody who hasn’t seen the ballet before might come just for that.”
Sansone put it a different way. “You could cry just listening to it, let alone somebody killing themselves to it,” she said.
Krutzkamp said he has been in most of the classic ballets, but “Romeo & Juliet” affects theatergoers like no other.
“It comes down to emotion,” he said. “People cry at ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ and I can see why.
Bill (Whitener) would want to have that kind of ballet in the theater. You’re going to find people who wouldn’t normally come back — and they’re gonna come back.”