“Roméo et Juliette” is taut, textured love story

Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Roméo et Juliette” offers more than what first meets the eye.

Partway through the third act, Juliette is in crisis. She has secretly married Roméo at the moment she is to be betrothed to another. But Roméo has fled; her Nurse has abandoned her.

A sweet melody recalls the couple’s blossoming romance as Juliette, draped in a sheer classical tunic, reaches toward the exit where her Nurse departed. A whirling leap, and Juliette thrusts a leg back toward the bed she and Roméo shared, then scissors that leg toward the exit, throwing the upper body backward, as if caught between conflicting pulls of family obligation and love.

It takes less time to say much more in Maillot’s ballet based on the Shakespeare play. Atlanta Ballet’s reprise runs through Saturday, Feb 14 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Emotional pulls like Juliette’s intertwine throughout, creating a complex web enlivened as dancers bring greater depth to their characters. These tensions weave into Prokofiev’s score, which conductor Beatrice Jona Affron and the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra performed Friday with warmth and robust clarity.

Prokofiev’s 1935 score has inspired dozens of “Romeo and Juliet” productions. Some choreographers have found the music’s tight programmatic structure and specific imagery — influenced by the composer’s film score compositions — too restrictive. But Maillot builds a denser story within this framework, constructing his ballet like a film that moves through seamlessly connected scenes, where actions spur reactions and emotions race from spontaneous love to rage and revenge.

Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s sweeping set is constructed of movable curved panels awash in Dominique Drillot’s shifting illumination. Combined, they vivify scenes with light, shadow and subtly changing color, advancing the story’s unstoppable forward motion.

As Friar Laurence, John Welker tries to halt the story’s inevitable motion; it is all a memory that replays in his mind. Welker projects intense emotion through stylized two-dimensional forms, often posed at right angles as on a crucifix, or pulled between his two acolytes. This seems to hearken the first production to Prokofiev’s score — a modernist interpretation set in 1938 by Ivo Vana Psota.

The ensemble echoes these flat forms in street scenes. But in Roméo and Juliette’s love scenes, natural moves — walking, running and embracing — spiral into three-dimensional lifts, as if the world has more breadth and freedom when they are together.

Maillot builds a richly expressive language from a few simple gestures. Symbolizing the couple’s love, arms reach directly toward the heavens, then squiggle down toward their hearts, like a film image dissolving or barriers melting away.

As Juliette, Rogers dances with honed suppleness and pristine honesty moving effortlessly from classical lines to earthbound, often expressionistic modern dance shapes. As Roméo, Christian Clark’s physicality has grown more natural, his emotions more expansive.

Tara Lee debuts as Lady Capulet, amplifying the matriarch’s power and pathos as circumstances spin out of her control.

“Roméo et Juliette” is beautiful on its surface. But what moves people — and they often can’t explain why — is its intricate form, a dynamic structure that pulls audiences into its emotionally fraught world and carries them to its poetic, devastating end. Program notes and multiple viewings help audiences fully grasp this sophisticated work, one of Atlanta Ballet’s finest acquisitions in recent years.

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