Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice
Nov. 8, 2011
Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most well-known of Shakespeare’s plays. Its themes of love and loss are classic and it has been interpreted in hundreds of ways—into plays, movies, songs and works of art since it was first written four centuries ago. One of the most brilliant of these interpretations is composer Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, which first premiered in Germany in 1962.
This week, the Boston Ballet officially opened its season with Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. JustArts was able to speak with one of the performers, MelanieRiffee, a dancer from Vienna, Va. who joined Boston Ballet in 2010. Riffee is a member of Boston Ballet II, the two-year pre-professional program for dancers ages 16 to 21, hosted by the Boston Ballet. There are currently nine dancers in the program. Of Boston Ballet II, Riffee said, “We get to be involved in almost all the performances and share the stage with [the Boston Ballet dancers]. We’re learning all the time.”
The ballet opened with a memorable fight scene between members of the Montague and Capulet families. The stage was filled with an array of bustling townsfolk conducting their business in the center of Verona, which then gave way to the classic duel between the rival families. Despite the lack of dialogue, I was able to clearly follow the action of the scene. The music, though it is a classical score without lyrics, also helped explain the plot through its emotional highs and lows.
Indeed, the music itself, conducted by Boston Ballet’s Music Director Jonathan McPhee, is worth studying. The different instruments seemed unwilling to let their voices go unheard. The passages overlapped one another, one beginning before the former had died out. Additionally, the pieces arranged for specific characters, such as the Duke of Verona, embodied their characters’ personalities and provided a particular thrill. I was also very impressed that the clashing of the swords during the fight scenes matched perfectly with the beat of the music. This precision reminded me that every tiny detail, down to the number of steps a character takes or the length of a pause between spins, is meticulously choreographed and rehearsed to perfection.
Of the rehearsal process, Riffee explained, “We were rehearsing for about two months before we opened. We worked on individual parts before we brought the ballet all together. We rehearse typically Monday through Friday, from 9:45 in the morning to 6:30 at night.” The company works at their studios on Claredon Street in Boston, and only came to the Boston Opera House, where Romeo and Juliet was performed, the day before the show opened.
All of that work seriously paid off. The dancers were exquisite. The show is double-cast, meaning that most main characters were played by different dancers on different nights. On opening night, Misa Kuranaga of Osaka, Japan played Juliet. She was clearly a crowd favorite and the true star of the show. Kuranaga is a tiny person, but when she flitted and spun around the stage, she was in complete control of the entire performance. Of the male dancers, I thought that Yury Yanowsky, who played Tybalt, was the strongest performer. He too commanded the stage, and had the swagger and self-confidence that his character is known for.
Other than these two principles, Bo Busby, who plays Paris in the other cast, was terrific as the Carnival King, a role not found in the original play. Busby, along with his troupe of four clowns, provided the biggest laughs of the night as a group of carnival performers who impress the crowd with their notable feats of balance and gymnastics in the second act.
Riffee said that the double casting is typical of professional ballet companies, and that “it’s fantastic because every pairing has a different interpretation and tells a different story.” This is not only because the dancers are performing with different partners, but also because of the diverse backgrounds of Boston Ballet’s cast. Of the company’s 10 principle dancers, only three are from the United States. The rest are from Latin America, Asia and Europe. This diversity exists not only in the group of principles, but throughout the entire 55-person cast. Riffee explained, “It’s really neat. Every day is a new experience. You get [dance] styles from around the world. It makes for a really well rounded production and company. It also gives a lot to the audience, because there’s something for everybody.”
That statement certainly applies to Boston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. The production had beautiful music, detailed staging and dramatic costumes, and of course exquisitely skilled performers. As Riffee said, this is one show “not to be missed.”