If a ballerina learning the role of Juliet in 2010 is seen watching the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film version of the 1597 Shakespeare play on her iPod in rehearsal, is it safe to call “Romeo and Juliet” timeless without being accused of succumbing to a sentimental clichAc?
I'll leave you to decide, but I'll tell you that Richmond Ballet's Malcolm Burn first choreographed his version of the ballet — adorned with the famous score by Sergei Prokofiev — in 1977. Even though he's staging it for the seventh time, he still jumps out of his chair during rehearsals, exclaiming, “Yes!”
“What's always interesting for me is the new group of people that are going to do it,” he says. “I get really excited sometimes.” The Romeos and Juliets that Burn has chosen for this production — Igor Antonov and Valerie Tellmann, and Kirk Henning and Shira Lanyi — have inspired him all over again. In casting the lead roles, Burn looks for “passion,” he says — “somebody that's passionate about the story and also, you look for an intelligent artist.”
For example, Burn says of his youngest lead, Shira Lanyi: “She's a very specifically beautiful dancer with wonderful lines and classicism, and also the ability to break out of that mold and just stand like a normal little girl. She's really an intelligent girl, that gets into a thing, follows it, researches it. Same as Valerie, they're two of a kind. At the end of a rehearsal I see them both heading for the pencil and paper and they write down notes. They're making a study of it.” To his cast he recommends reading the play and watching other versions of the story. “I always recommend the Zeffirelli film,” he says. “I love the way he interpreted the characters and interrelated them, and gave such depth to it all.”
In addition to pure dancing, the ballet requires a rich range of acting. “You need to have people that can respond normally and act normally and not be posing all around the place,” says Burn, who delights in the skills and experience of his character actors, many of them older dancers and teachers, playing roles such as Lady Capulet, Friar Lawrence and the Nurse. “They bring great experience into the room with them.”
Such experience and naturalism feed the magic of a danced story in which a single look or gesture can reveal worlds of emotion and drama. “The other day in rehearsal I changed a little something,” Burn says, “and I said to Shira, ‘Turn around and look at him,' and she did and I just about gasped. The way she did it was just, ‘OK, there you go.' And I think Kirk just about gasped too. So those are the moments one lives for, as you're getting it ready.” S
Richmond Ballet's production of “Romeo and Juliet” will be presented at Richmond CenterStage at 600 E. Grace St on Feb. 12-14. Tickets are $15-$125. For information, go to richmondballet.com.