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Romeo & Juliet

Their eyes meet across a crowded room, and everyone else seems to disappear. Overwhelmed, fascinated, they dance, ignoring their quarreling families and friends. Later, he finds her alone, and they soar in each other’s arms. You know this won’t end well. But even without Shakespeare’s fabled words brought to life in the lean bodies and sunny studio of Miami City Ballet, Romeo and Juliet still packs a powerfully seductive emotional punch.

Shakespeare’s 16th century tale of love enabled and destroyed by destiny, the iconic template for romance in Western culture, has had countless theatrical stagings and many film and operatic versions. It has also inspired a striking number of ballets, starting with a 1785 Italian version, through others in Russia and Denmark in the 1800s and a plethora of 20{+t}{+h} century interpretations.

The Romeo and Juliet that Miami City Ballet opens Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, created in 1962 by John Cranko and set to a score by Sergei Prokofiev, is one of the most famous and beloved in the dance world. One of the company’s biggest premieres in years, the program carries the added attraction of being universally known. Plenty of people don’t know Swan Lake or Giselle. Everyone has heard of Romeo and Juliet.

“It’s a tremendous responsibility,” says MCB principal dancer Jennifer Kronenberg, who will dance Juliet on opening night opposite husband Carlos Guerra. “You have to be truthful to the story, because everyone knows the story.”

Packed with action and emotion, with passionate lovemaking and tragic duels, Romeo and Juliet is a Shakespeare play particularly well suited for ballet (imagine trying to dance Hamlet’s philosophizing or As You Like It’s identity-shifting antics).

Cranko, a prolific South African-born choreographer who worked at England’s Royal Ballet before making his mark as director of Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet, died at of a heart attack on an airplane in 1973. He was 45. But his versions of Romeo and Juliet, Eugene Onegin and The Taming of the Shrew have become international ballet staples.

Cranko had a striking talent for expressing drama through movement, says Jane Bourne, who has been staging his ballets for 46 years and taught Romeo and Juliet to MCB.

“What I think is extremely special about Cranko is his ability to tell a story,” Bourne says from Antwerp, where she is teaching Onegin to the Royal Ballet of Flanders. Instead of the formal, archaic mime used in 19{+t}{+h} century classics such as Swan Lake, Cranko characteristically used expressive movement, naturalistic acting and smart staging to tell a story. In Romeo and Juliet, he is helped by Prokofiev’s 1935 score, which closely follows Shakespeare’s action.

“It’s all there in the movement,” Bourne says. “Often I don’t have to explain anything to the dancers. They understand everything from the choreography. They do the steps, and they know the story.”

In rehearsal at MCB, as Kronenberg and Guerra meet for the first time at the Capulet ball, they stand in front of formally parading dancers facing the back, as if the rest of the world were disappearing. In the famous balcony scene, Guerra leaps and whirls with excitement and lifts Kronenberg high in ecstatic arches. The fights clang with real sword play. There’s plenty of physical comedy and action. In the duel between Romeo’s wisecracking buddy Mercutio, played by Renato Penteado, and Tybalt, the panther-like Isanusi Garcia-Rodriguez, Jeanette Delgado, as one of Mercutio’s gypsy groupies, chomps down on Tybalt’s arm.

“As long as you commit yourself one-hundred percent to the dancing, it’s all there for you,” Kronenberg says. In the bedroom scene, as Romeo prepares to leave Juliet after their only night together, Guerra says Cranko’s steps were as good as a script. “He’s trying to go; she’s saying no. He feels guilty; she hugs him ‘It’s ok,’” he says.

Kronenberg, 34, from Queens, and Guerra, 32, from Cuba, met at MCB and married almost five years ago. They say being in love helps in playing the world’s most famous romantic pair.

“We don’t have to try so much. We just have to look at each other,” Guerra says.

“We haven’t been together for so long that we can’t conjure up butterflies,” says Kronenberg. “I still remember feeling that way.”

They certainly seem to enjoy their rehearsal kiss (which lasts so long they’re late on subsequent steps). The two are happy they were cast together.

“I joked that if she did it with someone else she couldn’t really kiss him,” Guerra says.

Kronenberg was incredulous. “I was like ‘Really?’” she says, laughing.

“I just said it to see how she would react,” Guerra says with a wink.

Bourne says she and others responsible for staging Cranko’s ballets usually don’t cast real couples as Shakespeare’s lovers.

“Very often we don’t put couples together because they fight,” Bourne says. “I didn’t know in the beginning they were married.”

But she has been impressed by Kronenberg and Guerra’s ability, like that of the rest of the company, to shift from their regular repertory of abstract and contemporary ballets.

“I was a little concerned,” she says. “But right from the start of rehearsals I thought these people are gonna be great.”

In venturing away from the company’s usual neoclassical offerings, MCB’s directors hope the fame of Shakespeare’s tale, and the — for them — lavish, $1.5 million production, with sets and costumes rented from the National Ballet of Canada, will make Romeo and Juliet a hit. The company has already added more performances to its regular weekend schedule in Miami, Broward and Palm Beach. Yet it also has been something of a stretch. Several dancers slated for the lead roles have had injuries that will delay or keep them from appearing. Still, the chance to perform a theatrical and ballet classic is exciting.

“They always love to do new things,” artistic director Edward Villella says. “And obviously this is something we’ve never done before. It’s a great big plum of a ballet.”

It is particularly rich for Kronenberg, who always had longed to dance Juliet, and Guerra, who left a troupe in Chile for Miami just before it was to stage the Cranko version.

“I never got to do it there,” he says.

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