‘Romeo et Juliette’ a triumph for Atlanta Ballet

From the tingle in Juliette’s fingers to the elegance of bodies in balletic motion; from the emotional pulls of Sergei Prokofiev’s score to the glowing simplicity of its stage setting, Atlanta Ballet’s luminous “Romeo et Juliette” defies analysis. Like first love, it is stirring at every level.

Shakespeare’s famous story of star-crossed lovers is powerfully tragic. It’s a lovely irony that a tragedy on stage is a triumph for Atlanta Ballet. With choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot’s production, the company’s quest to build a sleek artistic profile is more fully realized than ever.

In last Friday evening’s Southern premiere and in Sunday’s performance, this troupe’s dancers gave some of their most moving and skilled performances yet seen on the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre stage, including a tour-de-force by Alessa Rogers as Juliette. The production will run Thursday through Saturday.

In 1996, when Maillot’s version received its premiere with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, there had been at least 85 dance productions based on Shakespeare’s play. Unlike many of these, Maillot shies away from realism. The ballet isn’t set in 14th-century Verona or any specific place or time. Instead, Maillot highlights Prokofiev’s music. He structures his ballet like a film narrative, where characters’ impulses, actions and reactions drive the story. This leads the audience from rough-handed carousing to playful humor, to love, complicated by murder and revenge.

Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s minimalist set, composed of moving white panels and a suspended ramp, create a canvas for Dominique Drillot’s subtly changing lighting, while Jerome Kaplan’s flowing costumes give the story a suspended feel. In the ballet’s two hour and 15-minute span, the narrative arc never drops.

In both performances, Rogers was in constant connection with conductor Ari Pelto and the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra. Musicians responded to her vitality — and precise phrasing — with fresh spontaneity.

Maillot takes an inclusive approach to ballet and modern dance idioms, blending pointe work with barefoot dancing. He combines airy classical lifts with expressive body shapes built on opposing tensions. Hands play a telling role. They cup into shapes of beating hearts, press together flat, as in prayer, and squiggle in toward the heart. They quiver with unrestrained passion.

Friar Laurence, played by John Welker in severe black and white, sets the story in motion. His guilt-ridden gestures, often at right angles, seem pinned to an imaginary cross. He appears between scenes and sometimes tries to prevent them from changing, as if the story is a memory he can’t stop from replaying in his mind. Two acolytes represent his dual nature.

At the story’s center is Rogers, who dances as Juliette. Both innocent and adventurous, she surrenders wholeheartedly to all that love entails, including her ultimate sacrifice. After the masquerade ball, Juliette lingers on her balcony, remembering Romeo’s touch. On seeing Romeo (Christian Clark), she leaps into his arms. Romeo, smitten, fills the stage with elated turns and leaps. But he partners Juliette with an expert touch. They tease and chase; she bursts into one ecstatic lift after another. She swoons; she leaps, as if off a cliff — and he catches her foot in midair.

The story sways along, rocked by passion, humor and violence. Along the way, Romeo tries to keep peace with hot-tempered Tybalt (Jonah Hooper), who spurs violent reactions, despite Lady Capulet’s (Christine Winkler) attempts to rein Tybalt in.

As Mercutio, Heath Gill plays a brash comedian who flirts with danger and pays for it with his life. His raw physicality and rare gift for humor add just the right flare.

Rachel Van Buskirk plays Juliette’s bustling Nurse with crisp, cartoonlike gestures. A shaking hand, quickly snatched in, shows her frustration with a headstrong Juliette — whom she loves.

As in Shakespeare’s tale, one senseless death leads to another, driving the story to its tragic end. Audiences should pack a tissue or two, and see this production. For Atlanta Ballet, it just might be a new signature work.

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