LA Ballet Concludes Story Ballet Season with Ashton’s Romeo and Juliet by Steven Woodruff

LA Ballet’s season of story ballet productions wraps up with a premiere of the newest of their classic ballets, the English choreographer Frederick Ashton’s 1955 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Ashton takes Prokofiev’s tight and realistically presented narrative and tinkers with the music making of his ballet something more like a series of danced tableaux than the kind of direct storytelling John Cranko and Kenneth Macmillan eventually chose for their versions. The first of the season’s closing performances at the Alex Theatre in Glendale showed a company with uneven abilities who never looked comfortable dancing Ashton’s airy, challenging, and intricate movement. With a mix of company regulars-- all the female roles were covered by company dancers—and a handful of imported male soloists, Saturday’s production looked under rehearsed and also had technical difficulties with missed lighting cues and long scene changes.

There were bright spots in each act. The first of the pas de trois in Act I with Romeo and his street pals Mercutio and Benvolio, looked promising, but the second and more challenging one in Act II continued to unravel as it progressed, missing out on the intended ensemble virtuosity. Dancing with dependable consistency, the LAB women made a good accounting for themselves with the bedroom pas de six in Act III, and Julia Cinquemani was a spirited foil as Mercutio’s (Luke Schaufuss) girlfriend, Livia, in their scenes together. Zheng Hua Li also made a good impression with his dark and slashing characterization as Tybalt. Both he and Schaufuss dug into their rivalry in their well-played duelling scene.

Alyssa Bross and Kenta Shimizu in Romeo And Juliet

The drawbacks were many and reached across all three acts. The celebratory ribbon dance from Act II languished with too many shuffling feet and a generally clumsy execution of Ashton’s stylized folk dance. Both Joshua Brown (Friar Lawrence) and Erik Thordal-Christensen (Paris) seemed barely invested in their subsidiary yet important roles. Thordal-Christensen especially labored through his Act I solo to the Knight’s Dance music with the regal and challenging dancing remaining out of reach.  Lastly, LAB persists with doing its big productions to canned music, and when the production struggles, as this one did, it leaves little to fall back on to convince yourself you are still watching big time classical ballet.

The biggest disappointment lay with principal Kenta Shimizu (Romeo), who brought little heat to his role. Nor did he measure up to Allyssa Bross’ Juliet. Their three pas de deux were well executed but together they managed only a faintly glowing romance. Alone however, the excellent Bross gave the production its single biggest boost. She was exceptional throughout but especially in Act III, and carried on her shoulders the concluding act with a genuine desperation, maneuvering deftly between the acting and dancing with virtuosity. She was the only one of the principal dancers who delivered perfect dancing across all three acts, and finally gave the production what it had lacked from the beginning, a heart and a destination you could believe in.

(This production, the first Ashton “Romeo and Juliet” set for an American company, was designed by Peter Schaufuss. The ballet was originally made for The Royal Danish Ballet. Performances continue through May and June at various Southland venues.)

Credits: Reed Hutchinson

About the author

Steven Woodruff lives in Los Angeles where he is a professional musician, dancer, educator, and writer. His writing includes original poetry and translations as well articles on film, stage, television, and culture. He reviews dance and music covering national and international touring concert programs as well as local companies for DancePlug, DanceChannelTV, and BachTrack in the UK.