A Rainbow-Colorful Take on Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

By Truman C. Wang

LA Dance Project

LA Dance Project

The “LA Phil 100” celebration continues this week with Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – a performance of the complete two-and-a-half hour ballet with dancers in selected scenes.  Not a traditional ballet, the dancers were free to roam around the grounds of the Disney Hall, while a GoPro camera, manned by choreographer Benjamin Millepied, followed them and beamed the footage into the auditorium.  It’s a creative tour de force that shows artistic innovations in presenting old music can be just as effective as premiering new works.

It’s a rare treat to hear Prokofiev’s Romeo score in its entirety – in concert or in ballet.  As the most successful full-length ballet written since Tchaikovsky’s, Romeo is rich in danceable melodies and character motifs (Juliet as a girl, Juliet as a woman, Romeo’s ardor, Mercutio’s wit, etc.), not to mention passionate symphonic climaxes and rousing ensemble dances (the Gavotte, Dance of the Guests) – all demonstrating Prokofiev’s flair for theater music.  Maestro Gustavo Dudamel gave a brilliantly symphonic reading of this colorful score –- with memorable contributions from principal viola (Teng Li), flute (Denis Bouriakov), violin (Martin Chaulifour), two uncredited mandolins (Act III Morning Serenade), and a surprise guest from the Berlin Philharmonic, French horn star Sarah Willis –- but at the same time maintained highly danceable crisp rhythms during the ballet numbers.

I have nothing but high praises for the dancers of the LA Dance Project.  Different pairings of the star-crossed lovers were seen at the four performances (October 18, 19, 20, 21).   On the 21st that I attended, Romeo was danced by Aaron Carr; Juliet was Mario Gonzalez.  You read that right – not a typo – a colorful score with a rainbow-colorful interpretation that drew enthusiastic response from the audience (with one dissenting, highly audible, boo) at the conclusion of Act I.  I wish there could be more ballet as per the ‘dance-centric’ mission statement of the LA Dance Project, but the high technical challenges of the live-video feed meant we must be content with the Morning Dance, Act I finale, Act II fight scene and death of Tybalt, and the final dance of death at Juliet’s funeral.  Both Carr and Gonzalez danced their pas de deux with youthful vigor and lyrical grace.  The rest of the troupe also won high kudos for their excellently spirited work, as did the wonderfully fluid camerawork of Benjamin Millepied in a choreography style that I would call free-Fokine with modern ingredients.

Whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, or Romeo and Julian, a classic work like Prokofiev’s or Shakespeare’s must be open to new innovations and interpretations if the ‘old’ wants to stay new and relevant with the times.  One reason this Romeo succeeded so brilliantly is it managed to stay relevant without disrespecting the old traditions.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.