Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When Bard meets ballet, it's true love

Shakespeare's tragic romance gets dramatic dance treatment

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Shakespeare's enduring "tale of woe" came to life this week as the Royal Winnipeg Ballet launched its latest production, Romeo & Juliet. The full-length story ballet that runs through Sunday has achieved its own dance immortality; Rudi van Dantzig's inventive choreography is as fresh and engaging as it was in its RWB première in 1981.

Another undeniable reason for its lasting appeal is Prokofiev's wonderfully modernistic score, with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra ably led by Tadeusz Biernacki.

The 74-year-old company last staged this work, considered one of the great classical ballets performed en pointe, in 2009.

Sumptuous costumes and sets evoking 1400s Verona (designed by Toer Van Schayk with effective lighting by Nicholas Cernovitch) also ensure this remains a visually stunning ballet, with Juliet's romantic balcony scene, replete with gently blowing breezes through her window curtains, a particular highlight.

Principal dancer Amanda Green in her role debut -- and every ballerina's dream -- as Juliet must transform from young ingénue to tragic heroine. The regal dancer crafted a stately protagonist who gleefully flits about her Nurse (Vanessa Lawson) with lightning-quick footwork before morphing into a passionate woman in love with her Romeo, performed by guest artist Liang Xing.

Their extended pas de deux, during which they first meet at the House of Capulet's festive ball, showcased both mature artists' impeccable classical technique, with their lyrical lines bonding them more strongly than their natural chemistry. Green's chilling solo, where she resolutely chooses to take Friar Laurentius' (Jaime Vargas) potion, also showed this company gem's sizable dramatic gifts, as she's torn between a fear of death and being forced to marry Count Paris, suitably portrayed by Tristan Dobrowney.

Xing, previously a principal dancer with the National Ballet of China, first appeared onstage as a lovesick dreamer, mooning about the village square with his rugged chums Benvolio (Yosuke Mino) and a lute-playing Mercutio (Dmitri Dovgoselets). His slender physique helped establish his star-crossed character's sensitivity, progressing through his own emotional trajectory during the 145-minute (including intermission) production that finally ends when he tragically plunges the dagger through his heart in the creepily lit Capulet tomb.

Romeo & Juliet is not only a story of the power of undying love, but also serves as a cautionary tale, dealing with the destructive forces of warring factions. One of the production's most riveting performances belonged to Egor Zdor as Juliet's swaggering, volatile cousin Tybalt. His clashing swordfight with Dovgoselets' Mercutio -- now a taunting powder keg about to blow -- during their climatic Act II showdown created a mesmerizing sense of real danger.

Seeing four RWB veterans -- all former principal dancers now acting as company ballet masters -- onstage in character roles was pure joy, if not surreal déj vu. The deeply missed presence of Zhang Wei-Qiang (Lord Capulet), Tara Birtwhistle (Lady Capulet), in addition to Lawson and Vargas added gravitas, as well as recalling the wealth of talent that has sprung from this company over the years.

However, also witnessing the youthful energy of the next generation, with 16 students from the RWB School's Professional/Recreational Division cast for this production, also showed the continuity of generations -- and perhaps a sneak peek at future Romeos and Juliets to come.

Centuries after first being penned, not to mention many incarnations later, the English bard's eternal tale has well stood the test of time. So, too, has this production, with the RWB presenting a timely, if not tragically gripping, Valentine's Day gift to its loyal balletomanes.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 14, 2014 D3

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