It may be the most famous scene in Western literature: Romeo’s declaration of love beneath Juliet’s balcony. So how do you stage it without words? If you stage it as a dance how do you deal with the separation of the two lovers? Sir Kenneth MacMillan provided an easy answer in his choreography for Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. You get Juliet off that balcony and down on terra firma for a pas de deux with Romeo stat. The challenge is that the dancers’ physicality has to be as good as Shakespeare’s words.
Cory Stearns and Gillian Murphy of the American Ballet Theatre meet MacMillan’s challenge as the star-crossed title characters in a new production of Prokofiev’s ballet playing at Lincoln Center through June 15. But they’re lucky. They have the support of the spare-no-expenses American Ballet Theatre ethos. It’s resulted in another sumptuous, soaring ballet.
ABT’s Romeo and Juliet opens on the marketplace of Verona. There’s a wooden stairway, several stalls for vendors, some hay scattered about, all the little organic details the company likes to establish for complete immersion. The marketplace slowly comes alive as the baker arrives, then the blacksmith, then the fishmonger. This is a living space, perfect for MacMillan’s unfussy, down-to-earth choreographic style. He even integrates some elements of northern Italian folkdance into the traditional ballet when he has a group of wheat-toting women perform light clogging. Before you know it, the entire marketplace has erupted in violence with Montagues dueling Capulets via some fierce swordplay.
MacMillan’s democratic style meant populating his stage with a multitude of elements at once and encouraging you to scan about and perceive as many details as possible. That means any of the background peasants get as much attention as Tybalt and Mercutio. Only Romeo and Juliet themselves get the spotlight. As Romeo, Cory Stearns, who’s only been a principal at ABT for two years, is athletic and engaging. The Long Island native is more streamlined than muscular, perfect for capturing a youth in the throes of his first true passion. And Gillian Murphy, a South Carolina prodigy who’s been a principal for eleven years, is appropriately willowy and ethereal.
In bringing life to their characters, Stearns and Murphy are supported by Prokofiev’s propulsive 1935 score, conducted here by Charles Barker. The Russian modernist was a master of narrativizing music, and he’s best known today for teasing out the full drama of his works by assigning themes to each of his characters. One of his most famous pieces, Peter and the Wolf, goes so far as to designate a specific instrument for each animal in the story. Something similar happens here, with flutes corresponding to Juliet and strings to Romeo. But overall, Romeo and Juliet is one of Prokofiev’s looser compositions. In conjunction with MacMillan’s choreography it’s a ballet that exists on the opposite pole from, say, Prokofiev’s score for the film Alexander Nevsky, in which the music is perfectly synchronized with the images — a vision of determinism reflecting a time in which free will seemed unattainable in Russian society.
The one time you feel that level of control in Romeo and Juliet is, of course, the famous “Dance of the Knights,” a brooding, violent piece in which the Montagues and Capulets march with militaristic menace. MacMillan places the two camps in strictly regimented formation as if the Montagues and Capulets are extras in Triumph of the Will. It’s easy to imagine that Prokofiev, living at the height of Stalin’s “show trials” and with the Nazis about ready to march across Europe, might have likened the Montagues and Capulets’ culture of violence to ‘30s fascism. Not traditional romantic music, Prokofiev’s composition seems to underline the lovers’ break from tradition more than their sensual longing. It shows that Romeo and Juliet truly is timeless, because it can be so easily modified to fit the priorities of the time in which it’s retold.