Liang’s version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is masterful work

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By JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Published: 2/13/2012  2:25 AM
Last Modified: 2/13/2012  3:57 AM

Let’s put it this way: Tulsa Ballet’s new “Romeo and Juliet” is, quite simply, Great Shakes.

The company gave the world premiere of this full-length ballet by Edwaard Liang on Friday night at the Tulsa PAC, and it is a masterful work of dance theater, one that tells the story of Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers” with an economy and artistry that delivers all the thrilling beauty of ballet and all the emotional power of drama.

And it was performed with an intensity and passion that showed the Tulsa Ballet dancers knew they were a part of something special.

Liang, whose work includes “Beautiful Child,” which was created for Tulsa Ballet in 2010, has never choreographed a full-length story ballet before, but his ability to delineate character and convey the intricacies of a narrative purely through movement is impeccable.

I’ve seen a number of versions of “Romeo and Juliet” – on stage, in film, as drama and as dance – and Liang’s version is one of the most effective, and most affecting, of them all. The drama is swiftly yet perfectly paced, the moments of comedy and tragedy are nicely balanced, and the small, subtle changes Liang has made to his staging do much to heighten the emotional wallop at the end.

Liang’s choreography is firmly rooted in classical ballet, but he twists and stretches the classical ideal in intriguingly modern ways that gives each scene freshness and energy, with numerous details that make this story as real and as human as possible.

Working with top fight choreographer J. Steven White, Liang created a series of sword-fighting scenes that were thrilling in their speed and viciousness – though carefully choreographed, they did not come off as completely stylized and therefore safe.

And Liang also excelled at crafting duets that are as physically challenging as they were emotionally rich.

For example, in the “balcony scene” pas de deux between the title characters, the effect is one of passionate, ecstatic innocence – these characters are, after all, children, so that the kiss that caps off the dance is truly the turning point of the story, as Romeo and Juliet are surprised at all the new feelings this simple act reveals.

And the pas de deux that opens Act Three is full of mixed emotions – love and fear, hope and despair – and plays out like a conversation between the two, as they come together in lifts that require they literally wrap themselves around each other, only to be pulled apart by the forces of family and society.

Principal dancers Soo Youn Cho and Alfonso Martin and soloist Sofia Menteguiaga and principal Wang Yi shared the lead roles over the weekend. I was able to see both couples perform, and each brought some intriguing nuances to their performances.

Menteguiaga’s Juliet was a more mature interpretation – her Juliet is a little more knowing, a little more adult. She’s still a child but imagines that she isn’t far from being all grown up. It made the moments when Juliet is confronted with things beyond her knowledge – be it love or death – strike directly at the heart.

Wang is a naturally elegant dancer, and his Romeo is a somewhat more reserved character – only when pushed to the edge by the death of those he loves does one see the passion within.

Martin presents Romeo as a more boisterous fellow, with all the energy and playful swagger of youth, something that comes through in the coiled-spring power of his dancing – even the tenderest moments in the duets have a tension of barely contained energy.

Cho portrays Juliet as a true innocent, someone for whom every experience seems new and a little overwhelming – one reason why this Juliet clings to her Nurse (Susan Frei) a little more tenaciously, like a child wanting its parent to make all the bad things go away.

Liang also crafts some explosive solos, especially for Romeo’s high-spirited friend Mercutio, whose role in the second act incorporates every bravura move imaginable for the male dancer and then some. It’s a demanding role, full of comedy and athleticism, and it was superbly danced by Ma Cong and Yoshihisa Arai.

Jonnathan Ramirez Mejia was excellent as the malevolent Tybalt and Andres Figueroa was a solid Benvolio. Alexandra Bergman, Beatrice Sebelin and Gabriela Gonzalez seemed to have a grand time kicking up their heels and flipping up their skirts as a trio of harlots, and Megan McKown-Miller as Lady Capulet made her character’s grief palpable in a brief yet gripping scene at the end of Act Two.

The ballet’s sets and costumes were borrowed from Houston Ballet, and Liang’s choreography made excellent use of them. Les Dickert’s lighting design illuminated the scenes well, and the backstage crew handled the set changes perfectly, to maintain the almost cinematic flow of action that Liang wanted in this ballet.

Conductor Nathan Fifield led the Tulsa Symphony in its performance of Prokofiev’s score, one of the greatest ever composed. It’s also one of the most difficult, and Friday’s performance had some rough spots here and there. But overall, the orchestra gave a suitably sumptuous performance, from Andrew Lahti’s delicate celeste to Jarrod Robertson’s thundering tuba.

Read more from this Tulsa World article at http://www.tulsaworld.com/scene/article.aspx?subjectid=272&articleid=20120213_272_D1_CUTLIN74224