Stage: Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Julie Gumbinner was a gentle, vulnerable Juliet in TBT’s production of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’
Stepping Up

An intrinsically difficult production is rendered beautifully by the burgeoning Texas Ballet Theater.


Sergei Prokofiev’s brilliant musical setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has had a number of dance incarnations since its 1940 debut. Frederick Ashton and John Cranko came up with versions in the 1950s, and later Kenneth MacMillan choreographed what became a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev at London’s Royal Ballet.

Choreographer Ben Stevenson stuck his oar in the water in 1987, creating a dazzling production for his Houston Ballet. Stevenson’s present company, the Texas Ballet Theater, put on his version last weekend — original sets, costumes, and all. And with it, a performance level that lifted the company to new artistic heights.

We’re used to good-looking shows at TBT, and these costumes in particular — aflame in Renaissance crimsons and oranges — are still amazingly fresh. The monumental scenery is also in fine shape. Not too long ago TBT’s opening nights looked like dress rehearsals, with shaky ensembles and insecure solos. It’s taken four years, but Stevenson finally has the dancers molded into a unified style: Ensembles are nicely mirrored, with arms and legs finding the same level at the same time, and crowd scenes have a dozen or more mini-dramas going on, with each dancer detailing his own character. New shows sometimes look as if they’ve been part of the repertory for years — like Romeo and Juliet.

The single, inherent problem of the production was easily overcome by TBT. The ballet as a play is hard to cast — the multidimensional roles tend to trip up unsuspecting dancers, and, per an old adage, an actress needs to be about 50 years old before she can do justice to the role of Juliet, but at that age, she’s too old to play it.

Julie Gumbinner, TBT’s opening night Juliet, is half that age but is a force to reckon with. A classic beauty with elegant, long line and enchanting smile, she spent last season gliding through major roles with little apparent interest or depth of feeling. As Juliet, however, she gave us a full-blown portrait, a heart-wrenching journey from nursery to grave in a few short days. The gentle dignity of the well-heeled daughter of privilege who leaves her sheltered life to meet the world was all there — the fear, the confusion, and finally the joy of first love with Romeo.

Where Gumbinner has been hiding this intuitive gift is anyone’s guess. The good news is that she’s willing to share it now.

She was partnered by Lucas Priolo, her real-life husband, who also seemed reined in last season. But Priolo, as Romeo, opened up with a passion and intensity only hinted at before, and his technique — bumpy in times past — seemed flawless. Sunday’s performance of Stevenson’s inspired balcony scene duet was a triumph of poetry and music expressed as movement.

Romeo’s buddy — the irrepressible imp, flirt, and impossible tease Mercutio — was happily danced by Andre Silva, a natural character actor with phenomenal technique beyond his young age of 20. He also danced one performance as Romeo, which was not a complete success; he still needs to uncover more facets of the role. The same could be said of his Juliet, Carolyn Judson, another fine young dancer, who is still working at the surface of the character.

Ballet master Anna Donovan took the role of Juliet’s nurse, and the veteran performer created a lovable, sometimes befuddled creature looking not unlike the late British comic Beatrice Lille.

Jack Buckhannan led the Fort Worth Symphony in the pit, and the orchestra sounded surprisingly tentative and scratchy during the first half of opening night. Even after three performances, the French horns and trumpets never did get it entirely together. The footwork onstage, however, more than made up for the slight musical shortcomings, as the best ballet often does.

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