Romeo and Juliet
Presented by Nashville Ballet
April 30-May 2 at TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall
Nashville has a love affair with Romeo and Juliet. Several years back, Tennessee Repertory Theatre staged a controversial production of the Shakespeare tragedy. The Rep followed up later with a highly publicized West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein's famous musical based on the tale. Last summer, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival mounted the play again. Now, in its final effort of the 2003-2004 season, Nashville Ballet jumps into the fray with its own dramatic telling of the story, danced to the stirring and elegant music of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev.
"When I was a ballet student, I fell in love with this score," says Paul Vasterling, a Louisiana native now in his sixth year as artistic director of the company. Vasterling's original choreography receives its world premiere at this engagement, which marks the first time, aside from the seasonal favorite The Nutcracker, that the ballet will be performing in TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall.
"This is one of the most basic stories about humanity that people can relate to," Vasterling says. "We'll tell the tale in a direct manner, without a lot of extraneous movement, remaining true to Prokofiev's music. In conceiving the ballet, one of my biggest inspirations was Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film version."
Prokofiev's workhailed for its musical richness but initially considered difficult for choreographers and dancers alikefirst premiered as a ballet in 1938 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. But it wasn't until 1962, with John Cranko's choreography for the Stuttgart Ballet, that it achieved worldwide success. Sir Kenneth MacMillan's 1965 production with the Royal Ballet in London, featuring the famed team of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, solidified the work's reputation.
"Stylistically, what I've done is draw from other productions and hit the middle of the road," Vasterling says. "The first Russian production was stylized and more pantomimic. Some versions have been done very avant-garde. We'll approach the piece from a theatrical place, from the narrative of the play."
Romeo and Juliet is the biggest production in the ballet's 18-year history, featuring a cast of 50 (the resident company of 18 plus training program students and extras), the 70-piece Nashville Symphony with Paul Gambill conducting, and classy scenery and costumes on loan courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre. The principal roles of Romeo and Juliet are double cast, featuring two poetically lithe duos: Christopher Mohnani and Rachel Ellis, and married couple Matthew Christensen and Jennifer McNamara. Others in the cast include Eddie Mikrut as Mercutio, Eric Harris as Tybalt and Adam Sage and Kathryn Beasley as Lord and Lady Capulet.
"There was a conscious point when I knew I had the right dancers to do this work," Vasterling explains. "Five years ago, we couldn't have attempted it." The company's 2001 purchase of spacious headquarters in Sylvan Park has raised its presence in the community and permitted more ambitious productions.
"My goal has always been to get some roots," Vasterling continues. "I have a kind of dancer that I look forsomeone versatile who can do both ballet and contemporary work, who can also act and has a theatrical sensibility. While we draw our talent from national searches, we're trying to develop our own artists as well."
The ballet recently received word that its fall 2003 production of The Bell Witch has been nominated for the international Benois de la Danse prize for choreography. In addition, the company's 2004 children's ballet, Degas and the Little Dancer, will be featured on a BBC broadcast in England.
"Artistically, we've been on the upswing for a long time," says Vasterling, who himself just received the good news that he's been awarded a Fulbright teaching fellowship that will take him to Argentina this summer. "It's a big dream to own our own place. Now we have a superior instrument to practice on. The dancers have an opportunity to really move and fill that space. It's made a huge difference in the transition from rehearsal to actual performance."
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