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Shakespeare and Prokofiev’s Elixir of Love

Ed Rampell: As we celebrate the 450th birthday of the Bard who is best known for his plots and arguably (to quote Polonius in Hamlet) “this above all else” his dialogue, it’s intriguing to encounter a Shakespearean experience minus a single spoken line.
Romeo and Juliet


[dc]“O[/dc] Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” Why, along with his gal pal Juliet, he’s at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through Sunday, July 13, as the National Ballet of Canada presents Sergei Prokofiev’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi Ballet’s former artistic director, choreographed this elegant production that renders William Shakespeare’s immortal play about doomed young lovers into the idiom of dance and music, pure sight and sound.

As we celebrate the 450th birthday of the Bard who is best known for his plots and arguably (to quote Polonius in Hamlet) “this above all else” his dialogue, it’s intriguing to encounter a Shakespearean experience minus a single spoken line. Can one appreciate the Stratford-upon-Avon dramatist’s work without one word uttered? Is the text as meaningful without any of Will’s indelible dialogue, such as Mercutio’s curse: “A plague upon both your houses”? (Contrary to popular belief, Romeo’s buddy was not referring to the Democratic and Republican parties, but rather to those warring families, the Capulets and Montagues, from whence our title characters sprang.)

The characters and the entire story are expressed through Prokofiev’s music, Ratmansky’s gravity-defying choreo, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, as well as by Richard Hudson’s set and costume design, which are all important, as they enhance a sense of time (the Renaissance) and place (“fair Verona”). Another important element that tends to be overlooked amidst ballet’s Balanchine- and Nijinsky-like aeronautics is acting. Since there is no spoken dialogue this acting is most akin to that of the cinema prior to talkies, when thespians had to use facial expressions, body movements and the like to convey what they couldn’t by voicing lines. (Notice, Dear Reader, that I didn’t say “silent films,” because many of those early movies were accompanied by piano and even orchestras -- often with music specifically composed for particular pictures. And given Prokofiev’s sonorous score, the ballet is anything but silent.)

Although not as essential as their dancing per se, on opening night the acting by Moscow-born Elena Lobsanova and Quebec-born Guillaume Côtéas Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers” (other dancers alternate in the Juliet and Romeo roles) was vital in conveying the drama’s romanticism and adolescent angst (worthy of a WB series, by the way). The premiere’s best acting was by Poland-born Piotr Stanczyk as the mercurial, merry Mercutio of the Montagues. His clowning around (Mercutio is surely one of those people who doesn’t know when to quit kidding or enough is enough) is as significant to Stanczyk’s part as is his deft, daft dancing. Not to mention the scene-stealing Stanczyk’s swordplay, as Mercutio crosses blades with the Capulet clan’s menacing McGee Maddox as Tybalt, the quintessential character when it comes to not quite getting the joke. (Both Stanczyk and Maddox alternate in the roles with other performers, but reprise their parts on the evening of July 12.)

Romeo and Juliet

Naturally, the choreography elevates and heightens the drama. When the title characters meet at a masked ball in the Capulets’ household, it’s interesting to see the ballet version of this initial encounter and to compare it with the brilliantly lensed scene in the school gym in 1961’s West Side Story, where all time and space stops as Tony just meets a girl named Maria in that latter day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City.When she leaps through the air to alight upon Romeo’s shoulders or back, 27-ish year old Elena Lobsanova’s Juliet seems to be in flight. The two lovers look like birds taking wing in an almost aerial pas de deux in her bedroom, with its four-poster bed and canopy -- an especially lyrical evocation of lovemaking’s raptures.

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From the vantage point of my center row seats in the orchestra, Lobsanova and Côté also looked like teenagers, which seems age appropriate per Shakespeare’s text. The youthfulness of 18-year-old Leonard Whiting and 17-year-old Olivia Hussey helped make Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version so refreshing and memorable, whereas in 1936, 43-year-old Leslie Howard and 34-year-old Norma Shearer essayed the roles in George Cukor’s screen version of Romeo and Juliet -- with a 54-year-old John Barrymore as Mercutio!)

Prokofiev’s superb score, which he’d composed by 1935, is ably performed by an orchestra consisting of local musicians and conducted by the National Ballet of Canada’s music director and principal conductor, David Briskin. Audiences will likely recognize the dissonant "Dance of the Knights", which has been used in movies such as Caligula and TV shows like The Simpsons and the British reality series The Apprentice. This piece, also known as “Montagues and Capulets”, conjures a mood of foreboding musically expressed through the strings playing pianissimo or softly, contrasted by the woodwinds and horns blowing fortissimo. Prokofiev has a very strong visual sense which served him well in composing music for ballet -- shortly after creating Romeo and Juliet’s sonic score he joined with that other Sergei (Eisenstein) to compose the score for the 1938 epic Alexander Nevsky. The composer and director closely collaborated on this movie, with Prokofiev composing notes to accompany Eisenstein’s frames of film.

Romeo and Juliet

Speaking of which, the National Ballet of Canada production, overseen by artistic director Karen Kain, uses cinematic sleight of hand. Not only in the rapid scene changes but in what is a clever use of split screen, which, minus Shakespeare’s dialogue, is intended to explain how Friar Lawrence’s (Peter Ottmann alternates in this role with Kevin Bowles) potions will affect Juliet. Alas poor sweet Juliet and her beloved Romeo experience what is probably the stage’s biggest mix up, and their poor timing results in… But you know how the rest of it goes, don’t you dear reader?

I have one minor complaint: the famous balcony scene actually does not feature a balcony per se, but merely Juliet at her window, as the two say sweet nothings to one another. At least Tony and Maria got a fire escape in West Side Story! But this is a mere quibble that should not deter viewers from strapping on their ballet shoes and dancing down to the Music Center while they still can to experience what is otherwise a superb, effervescent production of the Bard’s classic (by way of Prokofiev) with its eternal message: Make love, not war.

[dc]R[/dc]omeo and Juliet is being performed July 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. and July 12 and 13 at 2:00 p.m. at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001;

Ed Rampell

 Ed Rampell