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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world. To listen to KPAC 88.3 FM, simply open the player in the gray ribbon at the top of this page and choose KPAC: Classical Music.

Review: Houston Ballet's "Romeo & Juliet"

James Baker

The opportunity afforded me this year by the double-Prokofiev season of the Houston Ballet has been terrific. Not only did I have the chance to see Prokofiev’s “Cinderella,” fully staged a couple of months ago, but this weekend I returned to see what is undoubtedly Prokofiev’s most important ballet: “Romeo and Juliet”.

For more than 60% of my lifetime, my experience with ballet has been mostly as a pit musician. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, though there is always a sense of missing something when in the confines of the pit. I’ve endured it for years, craning my neck in rehearsals, and even performances, to get a fleeting glimpse of the action which might be at the very front of the stage. Sometimes the great singers would come for the fully staged opera seasons in San Antonio, ages ago, and a Beverly Sills, or Donald Gramm, might intentionally come forward on the stage in order to better connect with the accompanying musicians. Of course, now and then a musician might actually be assigned a passage to be played either onstage, or offstage, in the wings of the stage. The point of this is that working orchestral musicians don’t often get to enjoy the stagecraft, nor do they get the full experience of a "Rosenkavalier," or "Traviata," or "Rodeo."

I do have especially fond memories of the mini-seasons the Joffrey Ballet used to give in San Antonio. On rare occasions, I would have the opportunity to actually view a performance from the audience perspective. Copland’s Rodeo required only 2 horns in the pit, so I got to witness some of the most American, and athletic, ballet I have ever seen. Same with the Joffrey’s performance of the bold anti-war classic The Green Table. But I digress (willingly).

In the case of Prokofiev’s stage works, I have only played “War and Peace” in anything resembling staged. In fact, it was a semi-staged performance, in San Antonio, conducted by Sarah Caldwell. Yes, I’ve played extended suites from “Cinderella” and “Romeo and Juliet”, but only in orchestral form. That’s why the recent opportunity to see both of these Prokofiev masterworks from the public side of the proscenium has been so special. First, there was “Cinderella,” in choreography by the Houston Ballet’s resident Artistic Director, Stanton Welch. Sources in the orchestra, from whom I got my prized complimentary tickets, thought the “Cinderella” was a bit twisted and quirky. Of course, they hadn’t actually seen the show; they were relying on comments heard from the dancers. And maybe they were right, though I thought the quirks were entertaining and well executed. I came away from the “Cinderella” experience quite moved by the power of the art of dance with great music. I also drove back home to San Antonio with a genuine respect for the Houston Ballet and its musicians. Brava to my friend Margaret Ayer for the quarter century she has put into the horn section. She always told me it was a fine orchestra, and now I knew she was right.

This week, I have been keenly anticipating a weekend trip to see the Houston Ballet’s season closing staging of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”. How would it compare with “Cinderella”, still fresh in my memory? Will “Romeo and Juliet” truly prove itself the superior work of the two? Will the orchestra impress me as much as it had on first hearing? And how would my friend Margaret be feeling about these performances? She had made the difficult decision to step away from the job at the end of this 2011-2012 season. I knew this couldn’t be easy. Margaret outdid herself with the tickets she scored for R&J. I got a great seat in the orchestra section, 6th row from the front. From there I could hear every detail within the orchestra and, more impressively, I could see every gesture from the excellent company of principal and company dancers. One word – WOW!

This was the Ben Stevenson choreography, dating back to 1987. I say this not as a ballet snob, for I am no where near, but because of the opinions I hear from within the Houston company. There are preferences and prejudices in every direction contrasting the company's work with Mr. Stevenson (he was Artistic Director from 1976-2003) and his successor, Stanton Welch. It was interesting for me to see Mr. Welch's “Cinderella” and Mr. Stevenson's “Romeo and Juliet”; I enjoyed both immensely. Interestingly, they both had little twists and quirks. I loved that Cinderella was a bit of a tom-boy, and the zombie dance in the graveyard scene (also in “Cinderella”) was both funny and twisted. Regarding Ben Stevenson's “Romeo and Juliet”, I found it interesting that he portrayed the Montagues as a much more footloose clan of the streets, intent on joking and provoking the Capulets, especially Tybalt, who had little patience for it.

Of course, the real story is the love between Romeo and Juliet, and that is amplified by the deeply moving music of Prokofiev. As with his “Cinderella” score, Prokofiev is an expert at providing the prescribed solo, duet and ensemble numbers which are expected in ballet. But in skilled hands, both those of the composer and the choreographer, these dances are much more than just filigree or athletics. Also apparent is that these are great fun for the dancers. And before I get to the emotionally charged performances by the principals, I must praise the attention to every detail so impressively realized in Houston. If the audience could pull its focus away from the center stage event, the viewer would find the periphery just as entertaining, albeit in a different manner, ranging from young thieves stealing loaves of bread from the street vendor, to amorous couples in the implied alleyways.

Venezuelan born Karina Gonzalez danced Juliet to Ian Casady's Romeo in the matinee performance I witnessed. Amazingly, Ms. Gonzalez is not among the principals or first soloists in the roster. She is in the third rank of soloist. This, I suppose, gives remarkable evidence of the depth of this company, for her performance was amazing. She played the character exactly right – as a girl just on the cusp of womanhood. It wasn't so much physical womanhood as emotional coming of age. And, or course, Prokofiev's music perfectly underscored that moment of first love. The balcony scene moved me to tears, as did the final scene at the Capulet's crypt. There is still no explanation of why art grips us as it does, why it reaches within our breasts and squeezes our hearts. I'm not sure there should ever be an explanation. It is best to simply allow music, dance, painting, theater, literature (the list goes on) to make us laugh, to make us cry, to overwhelm us emotionally. Every living soul needs such nurture. It's why we must never allow the lights to go dark on the arts. This is the food for our souls and we must continue to cultivate it at every corner.