Editor’s note: Reviewer Eli Keel was granted access to a dress rehearsal performance of “Romeo + Juliet.”
It combines excellent performances from its cast with Hoagland’s engaging movement vocabulary and stunning design elements to create possibly the most satisfying and engaging full-length ballet I’ve seen.
At rise, we see the two houses — Montague and Capulet — arrayed in opposition, each one standing atop a mound of bodies. That first vision is a bit breathtaking. This “R+J” is set somewhere in a future that is loud, bright and incredibly stylized.
Before a single step is performed, the audience knows what they are in for.
Most immediately, the costume design by Christian Squires leaps off the stage. It’s glam rock future chic of ’60s and ’70s sci-fi, and I could not get enough of it. In a lesser production, it would have outshined the performers and choreography.
Hoagland knows we’ll need a second to take this all in, and he gives us a moment to catch our breath.
Just as the first tableau begins to stretch more, the lights dim again. We can’t make out the faces of the man and woman emerging to walk toward each other.
Maybe it’s the titular star-crossed lovers, maybe it’s all the doomed lovers. We are left with stark silhouettes, black against the rosy hued backdrop and the glittering buildings.
The moment serves the same purpose as the prologue in Shakespeare’s text and exemplifies the way good ballet can exchange words for images and movement. In doing so, ballets often alter small plot points in older stories to suit the needs of the medium.
In Hoagland’s version, there are several such small changes and a lot of added subtext.
These liberties are showcased in the first full scene of the ballet, wherein the market brawl between the Capulets and Montagues breaks out. In the five-act structure of Shakespeare, it works to feature servants starting this violent interaction; but in the three-act structure of story ballets, we need to go ahead and meet some of the main characters very quickly.
So the fighting is touched off by a squabble between Mercutio and Tybalt.
It’s the first moment we get a chance to see Kateryna Sellers take center stage as Mercutio.
The character is often one of the highlights of a theatrical production of “R+J” — Romeo’s best friend has a wit and charm, balanced by a strange hard edge that makes Mercutio one of Shakespeare’s most masterful creations.
Sellers’ Mercutio is by turns prickly and sarcastic, whimsically droll and goofily good-natured. She also plays the sexual subtext of Mercutio’s interactions with Tybalt, Romeo and even Benvolio much closer to the surface. She’s excellent throughout and sounds the full range of the character’s depth.
Her performance left me wishing once again that other companies producing Shakespeare in Louisville would give women the chance to earn those masterfully crafted characters originally written as men. While Hoagland’s “R+J” is set in the future, some companies’ casting practices are stuck in the past.
In this brawl, we also are treated to the first appearance of Mark Krieger as Romeo. He’s a little lost amid the oversized personalities of Mercutio and Tybalt (Phillip Velinov haughtily earning the title “Prince of Cats”). As the evening progresses, we see a deep well of feeling from Krieger’s performance and lyrical fluidity of movement that matches the more athletic feats that are the purview of male ballet dancers.
Krieger is especially effective in smaller scenes and solos. He particularly shines in his duets with Leigh Anne Albrechta’s Juliet, and the two have excellent chemistry.
It’s hard to describe the beauty of movement and strength of characterization that Albrechta brings to Juliet. Then again, I don’t have to.
She teaches the torches to burn bright.
Albrechta is so engaging, it’s easy to forget how much technical skill and physical virtuosity it must take to seem to float above a stage full of people whose entire job is to seem to float.
“R+J” continues Artistic and Executive Director Robert Curran’s careful attempts to balance the desires of traditionalists who have historically made up the majority of the ballet’s audience against the need to lure in new audiences and court progressive fans more interested in modern or contemporary companies.
Moreover, this production attempts to meld those two worlds. We have the timeless story of Shakespeare and the traditional music of Sergei Prokofiev, but we have a contemporary movement vocabulary coupled with a daring flare for design and a more complex emotional life for the characters.
Progressive ballet fans will love this “Romeo + Juliet,” and if the more reserved patrons will come with an open mind, I think they will love it, too.
As such, Hoagland’s “R+J” isn’t just ballet, it’s also a question. Can these two disparate Louisville audiences merge and move into the future together?
I hope so. Hoagland’s “Romeo + Juliet” represents a future I want to see.
There are just three performances of “Romeo + Juliet” — Friday, Sept. 7, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Sept. 8, at 2 and 8 p.m. All shows are performed by the same cast at newly reopened Kentucky Center, 501 W. Main St. Tickets start at $35.