by Debra Danese for The Dance Journal | Photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev
PA Ballet s’ choice of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for its season opener gave confirmation to the company’s high level of artistry. As the curtain rose, the scene was immediately set. Dancer’s dressed in rich shades of gold, red, and blue set apart the townspeople and the noble families of the Montagues and Capulets. The longstanding rivalry between the families was established as we were introduced to Romeo (Sterling Baca) and Tybalt (Aleksey Babayev) in the first scene. Love, loss, and a familial feud were the central themes and MacMillan’s interpretation of the story kept all the emotion and drama of Shakespeare’s most popular work.
We were next introduced to the delicate, Juliet, who was portrayed with a coy innocence by corps member, Kathryn Manger. A large part of the ballet was told through pantomime and Manger gave an honest and raw performance throughout. She started off as young, naive girl who we saw transform into a woman by her love for Romeo. Manger and Baca were emotionally invested and captivating as the doomed couple. Their duets were some of the highlights of the production. They breathed life into MacMillan’s fluid lifts with a quiet tenderness.
A large cast of both company and PA Ballet school members made up the townspeople and guests of the ball. There were some nice moments in the character dancing but the strongest choreography was delivered by the various lead characters. Albert Gordon- who is always full of personality onstage- and Jack Sprance were perfectly cast as Romeo’s sidekicks, Mercutio and Benvolio. Their work showed strength and control with numerous leaps and turn sequences. Sword fighting had a prevalent part in the story. Although executed with skill and precision, it seemed to lack the intensity one would expect in a duel to the death. The exception was Baca’s furious battle with Babayev’s Tybalt in avenging the death of Mercutio.
The final scene was one of raw emotion. Set in the Capulet family crypt, Romeo encounters Juliet’s lifeless body. Baca danced a heartbreaking duet with a listless Manger. He then takes his own life out of despair. Juliet awakens to find Romeo dead. Manger’s anguish during the final moments before taking her life held the audience rapt. Her torment was authentic and primal.
The Renaissance feel of the ballet was effective in large part to the costume and scene design of Paul Andrews. His choice of colors and fabrics blended well onstage, although some peculiarly dressed mandolin players looked out of context with the rest of the cast. The PA Ballet orchestra, under the direction of Beatrice Jona Affron, is always an asset to the production. This is Affron’s 25th anniversary as conductor with the company. She has proved to be a valuable and respected member of the PA Ballet family and her presence in the pit is a gift to audiences.