by Nora Paul
The Cambridge Symphony Orchestra presented Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in collaboration with the City Youth Ballet of Boston at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium in the latest of a series of semi-staged ballets. The ensemble’s highly regarded stagings of Stravinsky’s Firebird (2016), Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (2018), and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty (in the 2020-21 season) preceded this one. Conductor Cynthia Woods led Prokofiev’s Soviet Realist score, relishing in his unbridled neo-Romanticism.
Former principal dancer with the Boston Ballet, Gianni Gino Di Marco choreographed this reduced-scale version of a work originally promoted for the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, but first premiered in full in 1938 at the Mahen Theater, Brno (in modern-day Czechia).
The Mosfilm version with Galina Ulanova And Konstantin Sergeyev won the Palme d’Or at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. It had its American premiere in 1969. Since then, the ballet has been ubiquitous, with choreography by Rudolph Nureyev for London Festival Ballet, Peter Martins for New York City Ballet, and many more. According to Wikipedia, “IN 2008, musicologist Simon Morrison, author of The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, unearthed the original materials in the Moscow archives, obtained permissions, and reconstructed the entire score. Mark Morris created the choreography for the production. The Mark Morris Dance Group premiered the work at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in New York state. The production subsequently began a year-long tour to include Berkeley, Norfolk, London, New York, and Chicago.” A solo piano version and, of course, many orchestral suites and extractions have enjoyed tremendous popularity on concert stages. YouTube hosts dozens of examples.
Di Marco and the movement artists made familiar the Montagues and the Capulets, in a Verona the audience could recognize. Mixed gestural and codified ballet, but even amongst the full-bodied ballet phrases was an expressiveness that surpassed the capacities of technique. Facial expressions and legible body language were woven into the movement, which itself sometimes veered in form from the traditional ballet in which Di Marco was trained.
Ruth Whitney, who studied at the Boston Ballet and danced in Stravinsky’s The Firebird in a Cambridge Symphony Orchestra performance in 2016, was Juliet; and Sabi Varga, whose repertory includes among the likes of George Balanchine. The dancers traveled within a narrow strip of marley at the front of the stage, foregrounding the orchestra. Their movements and stillnesses fused with the darting elbows of string musicians behind them.
Whitney’s costumes, like the animated gestures that made the plot more legible, created an exciting, contemporary feel.
The bombshell Juliet Brown left nothing to be wanted in her role as Mercutio. She brought an unrelenting fire to the role of Romeo’s close friend—in fact, upon being stabbed, it took Mercutio a few minutes, and about five tour jetés, to finally die. Choreographically, she danced a man’s ballet role as such, executing the turns a la seconde, triumphant turning jumps, cabrioles, and more, which are normally reserved for male dancers in ballet.
The devotion of the immortal couple proved affectively striking. In the scene where Romeo visits his beloved in the night, Juliet’s port de bras expressed the covalent emotions of desperation and tender hope; swaying motions of her back and shoulder trailed her head in the waves of its gravity before the lovers embraced.
The Boston City Youth Ballet appeared alongside the principal dancers in a few episodes, invigorating the village scenes with vibrancy and bold colors.
There being no pit at Kresge, the players sat behind the dancers, filling that back half of the stage, and communicating the equality of music and movement in Prokofiev’s masterpiece. Miracle-working conductor Cynthia Woods led the admittedly ‘community’ ensemble as they provided music for the star-studded troupe of dancers. The premonition I felt at the erroneously named ‘tuning tone’ was born out in passages of questionable intonation. However, Wood’s disciplined, rock-solid direction guided the group’s more aware players to some moments of genuine refinement. The second violins mustered some real lyricism that blended beautifully with the rich sound of the lower stings. At some dramatic moments, all of the string players executed tight runs and arpeggios that seemed to fly off the string like a dancer’s jeté.
Principal cellist Rupert Hunz’s silvery tone melded beautifully with high winds in The Young Girl Juliet. It may be best to say little about the brass, other than that players should be advised to stick to their principal instruments when delivering difficult solos, but the team of percussionists brought a colorful layer, like sprinkles on a cake, to finish out the ensemble. The audience broke out into applause at several points in the evening, encouraging the performers to dance and play on.