The opening night performance of Ballet San Antonio’s “Romeo and Juliet” was spot on. Like the blossoming of the lovely and yet inexperienced Juliet, the company has finally arrived as a fully realized concept. All the pieces have fallen into place, and the entire company must be commended for their excellence.
This production of “Romeo and Juliet” was originally choreographed by Ben Stevenson, O.B.E. for the Houston Ballet as a tribute to the opening of the new Wortham Theater Center way back in 1987. It is somehow fitting that this production has been brought to the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts by our ballet company in residence.
As the curtain rises, the opulence of the sets and costumes are immediately evident. Designed by the brilliant David Walker, we finally see the company in the setting that their hard work has earned. On loan from Houston Ballet, the Tobin stage is filled with a vision that is equal to the venue. As the story moves from scene to scene, the set and tableaux changes are sweeping and swift. The costumes are composed of silks, velvets, chiffons, metallic tulle, and the most gorgeous sequins work. This couture is fitted meticulously and like Cinderella heading to the ball, the dancers and their costumes are a magical enhancement of movement and characterization.
This is a gem of a classical story ballet, and one doesn’t necessarily need to be well-versed in the art of ballet to enjoy it. To begin with, it is a Shakespearean tale that most are familiar with. Stevenson’s use of the balletic language of pantomime and choreography tells the story in a way that everyone can relate to. His liberal use of physical humor makes the tragedy of the story all the more poignant.
We get to know Romeo and his primos, Mercutio and Benvolio, in the vibrant opening scenes set in the marketplace of Verona. These roles were played, respectively, by Yosvani Cortellan, Jayson Pescasio, and Dylan Duke. With the largest Ballet San Antonio cast assembled to date – 40, in all – they romp and play like the carefree young men that they are, complete with swordplay that was both witty and hair-raising at times. The Three Harlots (Yanaylet Lopez, Sofie Bertolini, and Carly Hammond) solidify the mood of carefree and transient romance with their taunting and seductive ways throughout the production.
Principal Jayson Pescasio, a perennial audience favorite, is particularly winning in the role of Mercutio. As always, his contribution is made with technical bravura and precise characterization. Played as a mischievous, pranking and charming carouser, his role is a direct counterpoint to that of Tybalt, portrayed by Jason Cox.
We are accustomed to Cox as the principal character player for the company. Whether en travesti, a crone, or a buffoon, he is always enjoyable. With this portrayal, we see Cox in a new light. He brings a brutish, brooding, bullying edge to this character that contrasts mightily with Mercutio’s light playfulness. Cox successfully becomes the Capulet cousin that everyone loves to hate – and with reason. He’s a preening peacock of a man with a short fuse. He conveys the depth necessary to propel the story of a family feud gone terribly wrong.
And the ultimate center of this brewing storm? The attentions of the budding young virgin, Juliet. Portrayed on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon by the exquisite Sally Turkel, she is a delicate blossom of a woman-child personified. Turkel maintains the character arc from impudent and reluctant girl to the grieving and horror stricken widow-too-young, with a richness of feeling that goes beyond her obvious prowess as a dancer. (Veteran Principal, the much-loved Sarah Pautz, takes the role as hers for the Saturday evening and Sunday matinée performances.)
Stevenson’s choreography, surely and with subtlety, defines this arc. Juliet’s delicate reluctance with the aloof and handsome suitor, Paris (Principal, Ian Morris, who takes the role of Romeo for the Saturday evening, and Sunday matinée performances). The hesitant giddiness of the balcony scene and her first pas de deux with young Romeo. The maturing and hunger of a passionate love and its consecration, first in the chapel and then in Juliet’s bedroom. The death waltz in the Capulet family crypt. Every step of the way, the senses are fed and the audience is drawn into an ever more complex web of love won and lost.
Turkel and Cortellan are given some of the most beautiful pas de deux work that exists and they execute it masterfully. They successfully achieve that fluidity of performance that make the best partnerships on stage seem like lovers that we spy upon. They get lost in the performance in all the right ways, the lifts light and spontaneous, the footwork deft. Most importantly is the character work brought to bear. Again, this is the work of a company that is gaining a depth that propels them beyond the simple discipline of the ballet studio to the ripeness of true performers.
Another player deserving of special mention is Danielle Campbell in the role of Nurse. Stevenson has given this character a warm and motherly depth. Campbell carries this role of the loving and long-suffering nanny to Juliet with reserve and humor alternating, her ability to shield the young woman from her parents or the pain and sacrifice of life, slipping through her fingers. This is one of those lynchpin roles that moves the story forward, and Campbell performs with finesse.
Last but not least, so to speak, is the live performance of the iconic Sergei Prokofiev score by the San Antonio Symphony. Associate Conductor Akiko Fujimoto, has the baton for this series of performances and it was a delight to see the ballet with live accompaniment. This truly makes the production a feast for all the senses.
Overall, an excellent performance with but one admonition. Now that we have a world-class theater, capable of world-class set-design, our local stage hands need to get their chops in order. A drooping drape or a noisy set change breaks the spell of a performance and casts us back down to earth. Ballet San Antonio deserves the best.
Tickets for the Sunday matinée performance are available at The Tobin box office, 100 Auditorium Circle, up to one hour prior to curtain, or call 210-223-8624. Also, you can order via TOBI online.
*Featured/top image: Tybalt and Mercutio engage in swordplay. Photo by Alexander Devora/courtesy Ballet San Antonio.