Do you recall your first Romeo and Juliet? Shakespeare’s historic love story, re-imagined for centuries in print, on stage, through film, and in myriad other ways, makes its Miami City Ballet (MCB) debut this weekend. Pointing to the story’s enduring popular appeal, MCB Artistic Director Edward Villella notes, “Our choice was to close the season with a major work.” John Cranko’s 1962 ballet Romeo and Juliet, with its Prokofiev score, fits the bill in both significance and scale.
Choreographed for the Stuttgart Ballet, which Cranko then directed, the ballet premiered in the company’s home town. On a tour to Leipzig three years later, the Stuttgart Ballet became the first West German dance or theater troupe to perform in East Germany, where their two performances of Romeo and Juliet achieved great success. Numerous companies world-wide have added the ballet to their repertories since its creation. The Joffrey Ballet became the first American company to do so, in 1984. At that time, Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times called the work, “arguably the greatest dance treatment of Prokofiev’s celebrated ballet score.” Live music by The Opus One Orchestra accompanies MCB in Cranko’s ballet, opening in Miami this Friday at the Arsht Center. Budgeted at $1.5 million, it’s distinguished as the most expensive production Miami City Ballet has ever mounted.
The choreographer John Cranko is remembered for his theatrical experimentation and his gift for storytelling. Growing up in a South African mining town, he worked with puppets long before his passion for the theater would be expressed through ballet. In his prolific career, he created four major full-length story ballets as well as shorter and non-narrative dances, choreographic miniatures, musical revues, and operas. In 1973, Cranko met his untimely death at age 45 after suffering a heart attack on board an airplane.
Hallmarks of his Romeo and Juliet include dramatic intensity in character interactions and stage composition, offset by wit and humor in lighter moments; an original gestural vocabulary distinct from classical ballet mime; and innovative lifts in Romeo and Juliet’s pas de deux. Cranko’s choreography presents exciting challenges for the Miami dancers, many of whom have never experienced it. Miami City Ballet’s repertory, vast and largely contemporary, does include some full-length narrative ballets, although they account for only a small percentage of the total.
Of the 92 works the company performs, exactly half are by George Balanchine—a choreographer known for his abstract modernist works that usually comprise one-third of a ballet evening. Villella, a veteran star of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, raised his company on the works of his former boss—one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century—rather than on ballet’s 19th-century classics.
“For the first seven or eight years of our existence, I focused and concentrated on Balanchine because I thought it would be the most difficult for a young company,” Villella says. His daily company class and resourceful artistic direction have shaped a company now fluent in Balanchine. Having achieved that, Villella says, “I wanted to open the repertoire,” adding substantial works of other notable choreographers. In MCB’s 25th year, Villella says, “We have obviously extended and expanded our repertoire to cover as many periods and styles as we possibly could so that we could become a truly repertory company.” Each of the four programs this season has featured a company premiere.
Both the role of Juliet and the work of Cranko are new to principal dancer Jennifer Kronenberg, who joined Miami City Ballet in 1994. “His choreography flows so well from one step to the next, and each moment lends itself to an emotion or a part of the story,” Kronenberg writes in an email correspondence, referring to Cranko. “Nothing is ‘gratuitous;’ each step has a significance.” The MCB dancers learned the steps from Benesh choreologist Jane Bourne, who works from a detailed score of Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet she composed in 1974 using Benesh Movement Notation. Although the system is complex and requires three years of full-time study, precision accounts for only part of Bourne’s job; she notes that she must also “make sure that everything looks completely natural and make sure the dancer feels good doing it.” (Kronenberg has the artistic advantage of dancing with her “real life Romeo” and husband, Carlos Guerra.)
Knowing MCB was a Balanchine-oriented company, Bourne thought the acting required in this ballet might fall out of the dancers’ comfort zone. “Not so,” Bourne found. “The storytelling ability of Miami City Ballet was always there, underneath the surface!” Bourne travels the world to oversee Cranko stagings. Over six weeks in two trips to Miami, she worked directly from her notes—as she always does—to keep Cranko’s structure intact and avoid imposing choices or mannerisms added by various dancers over time. In the United States, it’s more common to use video and DVD to assist in teaching and learning choreography; however, a camera’s view is partial, and dancers sometimes make mistakes during performances that will be recorded and repeated if left unchecked. In the margins of Bourne’s score are notes on quality of movement (much like vivace or andante in music) or meaning of a gesture—“Acknowledge guest,” for instance.
Villella finds the characterizations of the young lovers in this production to be particularly appealing. “What I like most about [Cranko’s version] is, it has a youthful exuberance about it,” he says. Other choreographers have chosen to feature older, more established artists in the principal roles. When Villella saw his first Romeo and Juliet, the renowned ballerina Galina Ulanova portrayed teenage Juliet. She was 49 at the time. “But what a major artist, that you absolutely believed her,” he says. Still, “I’d prefer to have a younger point of departure.” Having studied numerous versions of the ballet, Kronenberg writes, “I find that Cranko’s Juliet seems to make the most significant character transformation. For me, she starts out more innocent” and grows more mature during the course of the ballet.
Guerra has danced Cranko’s choreography and performed the role of Romeo, but never before experienced Cranko’s Romeo. “I have always loved the role of Romeo since I read [the play] in school,” remarks Guerra, who grew up in Cuba. On the island he danced the lead in another Romeo and Juliet—choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s score, not Prokofiev’s—and performed other Cranko work with the Ballet Company of Santiago in Chile. “I have always wanted to do this version, and now I have my perfect partner too!” he writes by email. “I can identify with [Romeo’s] surprise at finding true love, almost like he didn’t think it really existed until he actually found himself falling into it!”
Several casts of principals will infuse the prescribed choreography with fresh imagination during MCB’s upcoming run. Kronenberg and Guerra are cast together, as they often are and had been since before they even dated. Asked whether the two have any special traditions before going on stage, Kronenberg mentions just a ritual kiss and an “I love you” exchange. Guerra writes, “I like to tell her to remember that we should just dance for each other” before each performance.
Program IV: Romeo and Juliet
Friday April 29 at 8 pm; Saturday April 30 at 2 pm & 8pm Saturday; Sunday May 1 at 2 pm., Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Ft. Lauderdale.
or visit miamicityballet.org or arshtcenter.org. Friday, March 25 at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 26 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday, March 27 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.