By Steve Sucato for Dance International Magazine
The crown jewel in Grand Rapids Ballet’s 50th anniversary season, artistic director James Sofranko’s Romeo and Juliet, was decidedly a traditional classical ballet take on Shakespeare’s famous tale. The three-act production plus epilogue, the first full-length story ballet the former San Francisco Ballet soloist has choreographed, premiered on February 17 at home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the DeVos Performance Hall.
The production, by Michigan’s only full-time professional ballet company, was indicative of the 24-member company’s repertoire of story ballet classics, neo-classical works (including Balanchine), and contemporary ballet from a range of dancemakers (including resident choreographer Penny Saunders).
Set to Sergei Prokofiev’s iconic score, performed with feeling by the Grand Rapids Symphony, the production featured Renaissance costumes and set design by French-born, New York State-based Alain Vaës, with large, detailed painted backdrops that gave a sense of three-dimensional depth to the stage. These were courtesy of Ballet Arizona from an original Boston Ballet production.
Act I opened with brief spotlight tableaux that introduced the Capulet and Montague patriarchs and matriarchs, along with Romeo and Juliet. A bustling scene set in Verona’s public piazza followed, showcasing Sofranko’s Three Muskateer-like take on the relationship between Romeo (Josué Justiz), who favours matters of the heart, and his two sidekicks, Mercutio (Julian Gan) and Benvolio (Nathan Young), who favour making mischief among the villagers. These include a pair of equally boisterous “harlots” wonderfully portrayed by Emily Reed and Alexandra Meister-Upleger. The scene was an early indicator of Sofranko’s briskly paced, straightforward choreography in service of the ballet’s storyline and emotional arcs.