By Kaitlyn Waller, Staff Writer
‘Grand Rapids Ballet Romeo and Juliet’ was presented by Dance St. Louis at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on November 4 and 5. Told entirely through dance, Dance St. Louis retold Shakespeare’s tragic play of Romeo and Juliet, lovers from the feuding families of the Montagues and the Capulets in Verona, Italy, and their untimely demise when their efforts to be together prove futile.
After a musical prelude, the story began with Juliet and a screen behind her displaying famous lines from the play that established the setting. Ballet, music, various screens, lighting, and a few props expressed the powerful emotions and layers present in Shakespeare’s beloved piece.
The ladies’ gowns were simple, airy, and of a variety of soft colors, blending into the mist curling onto the stage from the sides. The costumes of the men were simple vests, jackets, and pants. Screens behind the actors displayed roses, petals, and scenery undulating with fog to blend into the mist on the stage. Orange, purple, and red colors on the small screens served to coordinate with the emotions of the characters and the times of day. At other times, for brief moments during the performance, the screens showed more lines from “Romeo and Juliet” that reoriented the viewer with important plot points.
A small end table, a bed, knives, and mannequins were the only props. No lines were spoken. The viewer is forced to rely on the cadence and intensity of the beautiful music accompanied with the dance to help describe the scenes and its emotions.
Interesting techniques were used on stage, such as strobe lights during several action sequences to create the illusion of chaos. Darkening the stage for seconds and re-lighting it with characters in different positions illustrated the restlessness of Romeo and Juliet. Spotlights and contrasts of still and moving actors were also used to set and focus scenes.
Although there was text on the screen at some instances, the viewer unfamiliar with “Romeo and Juliet” or had not read it in some time would find the ballet hard to follow. There is a synopsis in the program, but the characters and scenes were still hard to identify. However, I find the focus to not be on a firm understanding of the plot but on the powerful emotions invoked through Shakespeare’s verse. The anguish, love, and pain could be intensely felt in the performance.
The mannequins used as dance partners and as an interest to Juliet at the beginning of the play were hard to understand as the symbolism was not quite clear. But, accompanied with the ballet’s silence, it enabled the viewer to interpret the performance’s many layers in many interesting ways.
The choreography did begin slightly off, but as the play progressed, the ballet was smooth and visually entrancing. The main characters were defined while the other dancers served as a collective group to narrate the background of ball scenes or other individual scenes. Certain movements in the dance were striking in their unusual and unexpected actions and kept viewers entranced. However, despite the beauty of the dance, certain scenes seemed to continue too long and were slightly repetitive, creating a restlessness and desire for the story to progress. The dancing could not quite portray the content of the original play’s scenes.
However, the performance’s closing scene of falling “snow” clinking onto the stage in the mist and Shakespeare’s dramatic closing lines on the screen ended a performance that was haunting, powerful, and ethereal in its simplicity and its silence.