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Alfonso Martin and Soo Youn Cho

Edwaard Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which Tulsa Ballet commissioned and premiered this past weekend, is an immense and thrilling theatrical experience, uniting elements that don’t often appear together: massive scale and subtle intimacy, huge emotion and strong technical virtuosity, classical clarity and contemporary surprise.

In his first evening-length ballet, Liang has poured his heart onto the stage, and it proves to be a heart trained in the ways of the house he grew up in – that of Balanchine and Robbins at New York City Ballet. This is a story ballet with bite, fully alive to changing shades of feeling, fully in sync with the complex pacing, moods, and dynamics of Sergei Prokofiev’s majestic score.

“Romeo and Juliet” is a historic milestone for Tulsa Ballet, as well as for the choreographer. It’s the first evening-length work the company has commissioned in the 56 years it has been in existence. It was a bold gamble for a company of 26 dancers to bring off a brand new three-act ballet. But the effort has succeeded.

Story, character, emotion, choreographic intelligence: it’s all here. In the first act, Liang keeps the story moving but still makes full use of his opportunities to describe the varying energies of the ensemble. The opening scene in the marketplace is a lively bustle of townspeople, bread-sellers, and three glorious harlots (Alexandra Bergman, Beatrice Sebelin, and Gabriela Gonzalez) who are occasionally teased but genuinely loved by their neighbors. Liang’s dances for groups, here and throughout the ballet, explore ever-shifting levels and shapes, canons and repetitions, without getting muddy or confused.

Liang said he chose to choreograph this ballet using classical vocabulary instead of the contemporary style he typically uses, in part to pay respect to the traditions of the piece, but also as a personal challenge. When I first sat in on rehearsals, I was surprised (knowing the luxurious inventiveness of Liang’s contemporary work) by how very classical the choreography appeared – almost conventionally so. There are waltzes and chaines and tours en l’air landing on the knee … even a fish dive. But Liang’s choreography makes them unconventional in their effect. In the harmony of the whole, they sing with a soulfulness that is all his own.

Liang also proves skilled at setting a scene. Taking the slightly lurid “underworld” set by David Walker and the sinister music of Prokofiev’s famous “Dance of the Knights” as inspiration for the masquerade ball, he creates formal dances, tableaux, and duets that point up the roiling tension of the scene. As the guests arrive outside the palace, wearing red and purple laced with gold, with long sleeves draping Erté-ishly, they drift into intricate knots that rise and fall and turn inside out. Within the ballroom, the Capulet gentlemen strike their way forward and back with heavy steps, while the ladies hold a preening, arched pose in undulating rows behind them. The groups meld and swirl, arms joining like tentacles, and Juliet and Paris emerge into the middle of them for a duet that’s all careful pulling and pushing and promenades, his formality meeting her budding bloom.

When her relative Tybalt discovers that Romeo and his friends have sneaked in, a tussle ensues – but Liang freezes it mid-action and has Juliet pass under Tybalt and Lord Capulet’s raised arms and toward Romeo. They gleam as they stand together, just looking, their naturalness cutting through the darkened force-field of the ball. Liang gives us enough drama to draw us into the internal and external action, but he always maintains a clear thoughtfulness, such that we never get carried away in maudlin emotion.

Classical inspiration; contemporary expression. It’s a magical combination that occurs again and again in this ballet. The balcony pas de deux is one such wondrous thing. We see its genesis in Romeo’s solitary dance after he leaves the ball. With an ardent smile, he lets his head go free as he turns and turns, as if he has discovered his own interior space. He brings that inward freedom to Juliet’s balcony, where she too reflects on the space that’s opened up in her, and slowly they begin to share it. Their pas de deux wraps and unfurls; it goes from quick to sustained in a moment. In light-as-air lifts he lets her rise and fall as if discovering that her natural dimensions are cosmic, not cultural.

Martin and Cho

Act One is essentially flawless. Act Two, which is all transitions, is more difficult. Romeo is called to Juliet via the Nurse. They marry and instantly part. Mercutio is killed, Tybalt is killed; in their death competing symbols of freedom and duty are destroyed. The sacred bond of marriage becomes a clandestine transgression. The Capulet family bears a shattering blow. Now Juliet must make her own choices, create her own world outside as well as inside her own heart.

Liang has a great deal of narrative ground to cover here, and in the effort to get it all told some elements don’t feel quite fully developed. The scene cuts from the town square to the chapel and abruptly back again to the square, and there we see (both before and after the chapel) the citizens doing a lot of what we’ve seen them do in Act One (Mercutio and Benvolio goofing around, Tybalt terrorizing the populace, townspeople frolicking – though every one of the dances is marvelous, particularly a delightful canon in triple time for the two friends as they try to draw out the moony Romeo).

The characters of Mercutio and Tybalt never quite come to the full promise held out for them in Act One. They get stuck as “lovable knave” and “aggressive jerk,” without the pulls of what a friend calls “knowingness” that make them so crucial to the life of the play. As such, their deaths don’t cut as deep they might have had there been more time taken to develop their personalities in Act Two.

The death of Tybalt has an impact mainly because of the extraordinary solo for Lady Capulet that follows it (performed by Megan McKown-Miller, who, I must mention, is my friend of 20 years). The solo rips her at the seams — sending arms and legs in separate directions, tossing this most proud and upright character violently onto the horizontal plane — and McKown-Miller brings it shocking force. But apart from this moment, much of Act Two merely (splendidly, but merely) gets us to the end of this big narrative chunk.

But we do see Romeo’s character develop. Suddenly, after the marriage, Liang shows him as cautious and tentative, uneasy with a kiss from one of the harlots and uncertain of his role in the brawl that blows up between Tybalt and Mercutio. He ends up flubbing it, of course, unwittingly exposing his friend to Tybalt’s sword and then wildly charging at Tybalt, killing him in a rage, with the result that he is banished from the city.

The opening of Act Three, in Juliet’s bedroom, continues this development, showing Romeo torn between window and wife, between what is urgent and what is eternal. Motifs from their balcony scene return in the bedroom pas de deux, transformed in tone. There are sudden and complete changes in direction; lifts from the earlier pas are begun but then abandoned or shifted midway through. Here again is the fish dive – but now he pulls her around his back by the foot at its conclusion, so she’s nowhere legible for a second. It is intensely passionate, worried, desperate.

The ballet’s conclusion is, in my view, a stroke of genius – which could have turned mawkish if handled with less choreographic skill. Liang told me he decided to take “creative license” with the play’s ending in order to more fully show all the dimensions of Juliet’s dilemma. Indeed, I think it’s never been done before to bring Tybalt and Mercutio into Juliet’s bedroom as benevolent shades from the afterlife, but this is just what Liang does as Juliet stands worrying over the sleeping potion Friar Laurence has given her.

She’s in anguish: married to an exiled man from an enemy family, promised to Paris, her interior life unknown to her family, contemplating an absurd and terrifying scheme by which to escape her present fortunes. She has a striking solo, mostly turned away from the audience, in which her body is pulled one way while her head stays behind, in which Liang shows us how she’s “torn.”

What Tybalt and Mercutio bring when they enter her chamber is, very simply, the courage of faith. Together they lift her over the bottle, which has dropped to the floor; they form a bridge with their backs and arms and she perches on top of it. They give her a way to “get over”: to overcome her fear, to remember that death is a path to union, not a final separation. For a moment Juliet dances in unison with them, doing a darting, Balanchinean backwards sauté. Death is not the end of action, or passion, or identity. In the context of this story, it is freedom.

Alfonso Martin and Soo Youn Cho

Liang changes the final scene in the crypt, as well, to explore this idea further. Instead of waking from her sleep after Romeo is already dead, Juliet awakens at the very moment he begins to feel the effects of the poison he has taken. They have the briefest moment together before Juliet realizes he is dying, and before she uses Paris’ knife (he lies dead on the floor of the crypt) on herself. Their lives and deaths overlap; they themselves make a bridge. The dramatic effect is a devastating combination of unbearable grief and a slowly dawning liberation.

“In the death scene,” Liang told me, “we had to make sure that each measure is timed out so the audience sees the transformations, so it doesn’t become a melodramatic scream-fest. When Romeo finally dies, she goes through these transitional emotions: shock, total despair, anger, and especially during that time, relief – I believe in God, in the afterlife, in seeing him again, so I’m going to kill myself, and I’m happy about it. It’s this weird, twisted joy. It’s not as tortured as some interpretations; it’s very multidimensional. It shows more than just ‘woe is me.’ The question I wanted to explore is, What would you do for love?”

Liang’s spiritual approach to “Romeo and Juliet,” combined with his choreographic assurance and emotional maturity, create an experience that is deeply theatrically satisfying. Credit goes also to the superb cast, which generated so much heat on the stage that at times it made my heart race.  When a small company attempts a ballet of this magnitude, commitment goes a long way. As TB Artistic Director Marcello Angelini explained to me, “the sum of the parts needs to be greater than the value of each individual part added together.” TB’s dancers succeeded in that goal in the performances I saw, particularly on opening night, when there was energy and presence in every moment.

In the opening performance, Alfonso Martin gave his most interesting, most authentic performance ever in a story ballet. His Romeo was bold, shy, wild, tense, dreamy, worried … in other words, real. He had the courage to be less than (or rather, more than) “smooth,” and his emotional dedication, perfectly attuned to his intrepid dancing, was thrilling to see. Soo Youn Cho showed impressive range as a very youthful Juliet, fearless in all her passions. She danced with ravishing abandon, wonder, and freshness – new qualities in this carefully controlled technician. Liang’s choreography for Juliet is full of winding and unwinding, feeling the center and feeling the expanse outside her. Cho ventured bravely into this vulnerable territory and the result was a gorgeous, utterly believable performance.

In the second cast, Wang Yi danced Romeo with huge passion, shining especially in Act Three. Sofia Menteguiaga seemed ungrounded as Juliet until the balcony pas, where her natural flow took over. Her Act Three was stunning – thoughtful, mature, with moments of breathtaking physical release.

Supporting characters were equally impressive, especially Jonnathan Ramirez Mejia as a Brat Pack jerk of a Tybalt and Yoshihisa Arai as a funny, big-hearted, wildly alive Mercutio. Straight out of the gate, Arai, who trained at the Royal Ballet School, is perhaps the best new dancer TB has hired in years (and there have been quite a few really good ones). His dancing is both sharp and enormously expansive; he darts, then hangs forever. Ma Cong had fun as a zingy Mercutio in the second cast, and Andres Figueroa danced Benvolio in both casts with technical assurance and good humor. Joshua Stayton and Claudio Cocino shared the role of Paris, the former brimming with smooth nobility, the latter eager and ambitious. TB Ballet Mistress Susan Frei has lost none of the extraordinary deadpan skill she used to show regularly as a soloist with the company. Her Nurse was feisty and a little rough around the edges, true to Shakespeare’s characterization.

The swordfights co-choreographed by J. Steven White, a renowned fight director, were thrillingly fast, varied, and convincing. Les Dickert’s dramatic lighting was sensitively attuned to the moods created by the sets and costumes, on loan from Houston Ballet. And Nathan Fifield’s extraordinarily fine conducting brought the music to life with rich harmonics and expressive tempos (though the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra violas and violins were sometimes unstable).

Liang’s “Romeo and Juliet” is an impressive achievement, showing new promise in an already accomplished choreographer and continuing boldness of vision and ambition in Tulsa Ballet. (From observers around me I kept hearing words like “incredible,” “intense,” “exhilarating,” and “mind-blowing.” More than a few in attendance on Friday came back to see it again later in the weekend.) It’s a beautifully conceived, beautifully realized story ballet for our times, and Tulsa is fortunate to have it.