Nashville Ballet’s radiant ‘Romeo and Juliet’ opens at TPAC

balletrjdanceNashville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling loves to insert a little magic into his productions. Leave it to Vasterling to find a way to do it in Romeo and Juliet, the classic Prokofiev ballet that opens Friday night for a three-day run at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

We first notice the sleight of hand during the Act 1 Capulet Ballroom scene. The room is so full of colorfully costumed, festive dancers that Romeo and Juliet don’t initially see each other. But then Romeo catches Juliet’s eye and – poof, the partygoers all disappear, leaving the lovers alone in the room, bathed in the white light of their own ardor. The effect is an apt metaphor for this ill-fated couple, whose tragic love is so intense and myopic that they are completely oblivious to the dangerous world around them.

Of course, any production of Romeo and Juliet will necessarily stand or fall based on the quality of the two lead dancers. During Wednesday night’s dress rehearsal, Jon Upleger (Romeo) and Sadie Bo Harris (Juliet) both gave superb performances. (Christopher Stuart and Mollie Sansone will dance the lead roles on Saturday night.)

Upleger portrayed Romeo as a dreamy and intensely romantic youth, a nobleman quite unlike his mischievous friends Mercutio (Judson Veach) and Benvolio (Augusto Cezar). A lean and athletic dancer, Upleger was strong as both a soloist and partner. He danced with seemingly boundless energy during the balcony scene, executing difficult leaps and turns with ease. His one-handed lift of Harris during the same scene was awe-inspiring. As an actor, he was equally impressive. Indeed, his duel to the death with Tybalt (Brendon LaPier) was filled with believable rage.

balletrjkissFor her part, Harris gave a wonderfully layered performance as Juliet. She captured the innocence and effervescence of this character in the opening scenes – she was so buoyant she practically seemed to float on air. By the end of the ballet, she was believably world-weary, so much so that her crypt scene was wrenching. A flawless dancer, Harris moved all evening with grace, taste and elegance.

Most staples of the ballet repertoire – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, among others – seem to exist primarily to showcase the beauty of the ballerinas. Romeo and Juliet, in contrast, is a guy’s ballet. This is a work filled with swagger, machismo and violence. Vasterling integrated this side of the piece directly into his choreography.  In fact, the production’s stylish and realistic sword fighting (expertly directed by Tim Klotz) is part of the dance.

balletrjtybaltFor the most part, the men of Nashville Ballet lived up the challenges and delivered thrilling performances. LaPier played Tybalt as a tightly wound, stiletto-wielding provocateur. Veach and Cezar were delightfully hedonistic in the roles of Mercutio and Benvolio, respectively. David Gensheimer was utterly unforgiving in the role of Lord Capulet.

Christopher Stuart, as Juliet’s betrothed Paris, came across as a bit of passionless cypher during much of the performance. This was probably not his fault, though, since he had little to do other than stand like an inert fishstick in front of Juliet and be rejected.

The women in supporting roles all gave uniformly strong performances. Kayla Rowser, as Mercutio’s gypsy, never failed to capture the eye with her vibrant dancing. Allison Zamorski was a deeply emotional Lady Capulet and a good match for her husband. Caylan Cheadle, as Juliet’s nurse, and Mollie Sansone, as Rosaline, also gave worthy performances.

ballet-cryptDavid Heuvel’s Renaissance costumes were both opulent and unusually exotic – the Prince of Verona (Eric Harris) looked more like a Turkish sultan than an Italian noble.  The set, little more than steps and a scaffold, was functional and serviceable. Scott Leathers’ lighting always enhanced the narrative.

Some of the most memorable moments in any performance of Romeo and Juliet are symphonic. During Wednesday’s dress rehearsal Nathan Fifield led the Nashville Symphony in a performance of Prokofiev’s score that was full of sweep, color and propulsive energy.

Nashville Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet opens Friday and repeats Saturday and Sunday at TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall. Dance fans should make every effort to attend, since, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the bounty of this production is as boundless as the sea.

Photos: Top three photos by Heather Thorne, bottom courtesy of Nashville Ballet.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Ballet presents Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall, 505 Deaderick St. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 26 and Saturday, April 27 and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 28. Tickets are $35 to $87. Call 782-4040 or go to www.nashvilleballet.com.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.