AUSTIN, Texas — Friday night downtown Austin’s Long Center held opening night for Ballet Austin’s Romeo and Juliet. This production, originally choreographed in 2001 by long-time Artistic Director, Stephen Mills; featured Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 score, performed live by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, led by Conductor, Peter Bay.
Long Center, an architectural staple of Austin, warmly welcomed a diverse crowd of patrons ranging from “tweenage” ballerinas to life-long philanthropists of the Austin arts scene. The theater’s grand entrance features a circle of Roman style pillars that frame a panoramic view of Downtown, a perfect venue for the premiere of the company’s 2017/18 season.
The evening started out with a pre-performance discussion, hosted by Ballet Austin’s Educational Director, Pei-San Brown. Brown discussed the history of the ballet’s first adoption from Shakespeare’s masterwork, noting the several false starts, let downs and insults received by composer Prokofiev during the process. Brown engaged the group in an approachable and well-articulated manner, leaving the participants eager to further explore the world of dance.
Lights went down and the Austin Symphony Orchestra began to tune. Conductor Bay took his place at the front of the pit, and the air of the Long Center’s auditorium began to fill with Prokofiev’s sonic masterpiece.
The curtain rose, revealing Romeo (Paul Michael Bloodgood), Mercutio (Kevin Murdock-Waters) and Benvolio (James Fuller) flirting with three girls on the streets of Verona. Bloodgood, Murdock-Waters and Fuller started off the night with a set of well-timed comedic acts that instantly put the audience at ease. This was complemented by the reluctantly flirtatious Rosaline (Oren Porterfield) and her friends (Ballet Austin newcomers Constance Doyle and Hailey Dupont).
Tybalt (Oliver Greene-Cramer) strongly entered the scene with an air of indignation towards Mercutio. Murdock-Waters taunted Greene-Cramer in a series of character belittling jabs that were hilariously ill-received by his counterpart. These tensions escalated into a street-wide brawl that was intercepted by the Prince of Verona (Maxim Bleeker). The opening scene was supported by a cast of fully committed corps de ballet, whose presence added tasteful dimension to the venue’s larger-than-life stage.
Inside, we saw Juliet’s friends (Courtney Holland, Grace Morton, Elise Pekarek, and Brittany Strickland) start to gather. Moments later, Juliet (Aara Krumpe), came running into the room. Krumpe’s stage presence has long been a pillar in the house of Mills. From her first moments out of the wings, Krumpe’s experience as a leading ballerina was apparent as she portrayed a believably innocent, 13-year-old Juliet. The Nurse (Allisyn Paino-Martin), whose over-the-top headpiece, covered in billowy white fabric, made everything seem funny as she was tossed around by girls to the playful music.
On their way to the ball, Bloodgood, Murdock-Waters and Fuller participated in a competitive dance-off, filled with a diverse range of technical tricks, well-timed comedy, and a truly life-like brotherly bond. My only complaint is that this scene was too short. The three men shared a contagious chemistry that the audience ate up from the first step.
The Dance of the Knights was played at a hurried tempo, but Mills’ choreographic choices complimented this perceivably sudden burst of speed. Paris (newcomer Morgan Stillman) shared a pas de deux with Juliet. Stillman’s large hat caused technical unease throughout the challenging duet, drawing attention to the young dancer’s lack of confidence at times.
When Romeo and Juliet saw each other for the first time, Tybalt tried to confront Romeo, but was stopped by various members of the court, as if the namesakes were being protected by something bigger than themselves. The imagery of this moment, albeit simple, was one of Mills’ most powerful choreographic statements in the production.
The famous balcony pas de deux was everything you could have asked for. Virtuoso partner, Bloodgood, intuitively guided Krumpe’s elegant line, in a way only seen executed by a seasoned principal dancer. The couple drew you in from their first step with their infectious joy in the moment. Their only confliction was choosing whether to embrace one another or to dance for joy. They traveled every inch of the stage, and when they separated it was only for a brief moment before they came back together like magnets. Bloodgood and Krumpe’s combined acting skills made the audience feel as though they were watching the couple’s young love manifest before their eyes.
Mills’ choreography for this iconic scene seamlessly strung together elements of classical, neo-classical and contemporary vocabulary, which in the eyes of a dancer, should not work. Instead, he ended up with a timeless pas de deux that is truly his own.
Back on the streets, two mandolin dancers (Fuller and Chelsea Marie Renner) shared a dynamic duet. Although the placement of this piece felt like filler, Fuller displayed technical prowess in his petite allegro, and it was nice to see Renner featured.
Friar Lawrence (Tony Casati) made his first appearance at Romeo and Juliet’s wedding. Although serious vows were being made, Casati and Bloodgood managed to share a few comedic moments that were as humorous as they were unexpected in such context.
Tensions between Mercutio and Tybalt were continuing to build. Murdock-Waters relentlessly badgered Greene-Cramer until the two broke out into an all-out duel. Murdock-Waters was made to play Mercutio; from the start of the ballet, until he entrechat sixed to his death, his lovably hilarious portrayal of this character was complimented by his technical excellence. Everyone in the audience was sad to see him go.
Before we could get over the loss, Romeo and Tybalt started to fight. The revengeful tone of this fight was much darker from the start, featuring much more violence and complex fencing as Greene-Cramer chased Bloodgood up and down the vast staircase on center stage.
At the fateful end of this fight, Lady Capulet (Michelle Martin) came running into the scene to find Tybalt lying dead on the street. You could not take your eyes off of Martin as she literally went insane over the loss. From pushing through the crowd to ripping off articles of clothing in grievance, Martin dramatically brought Act II to a satisfying end.
Bloodgood and Krumpe shared another tasteful Mills pas de deux in Juliet’s bedroom. The experienced couple showed additional dramatic range as their characters’ relationship continued to ascend to new levels.
Lord Capulet (Orland Julius Canova) came into confront Juliet. This was the best role I have seen Canova perform, and was an exceptional casting choice by Mills on a character that could have easily been overlooked.
With Martin back, the scene climaxed when Canova hit Krumpe across the face. This moment, arguably the most pivotal of the third act, was so true to life that it was hard to watch…
Krumpe proceeded to carry the show’s weight into the next scene. As she continued to regress, silhouettes foreshadowed the next several scenes; creating a dual image, that was both visually and viscerally impactful.
In the crypt, Romeo ran down the stairs to Juliet. Bloodgood paused as he threw the sheet off Krumpe with his back towards the audience, creating a film-like image that was complimented by the inconsolable tone of the score. As Paris entered, Romeo went to hide behind the staircase. At this moment you could see the harsh reality of the situation starting to set it in on Bloodgood’s face. After killing Paris, Romeo went on, hopelessly trying to revive Juliet. Bloodgood proceeded to dance with Krumpe’s unresponsive body, leaving her only briefly, in total anguish of his loss; an eerie reflection of the balcony scene, which now seemed like a lifetime ago.
As the poison started to take Romeo, he was so consumed by his hopelessness that he could not make it back to Juliet’s body before his death. This ingenious imagery of this choreographic choice by Mills added monumental weight to this poignant moment.
When Juliet reawakened, Friar Lawrence unsuccessfully attempted to lead her out of the crypt without seeing Romeo’s body. Krumpe’s slow trip back downstairs was painful to witness as a now fully attached audience member. The contrasting innocence of Juliet’s theme added even more gravity to the already desperate tone of the music as the night progressed towards its final crescendo.
Juliet’s final moments felt authentic, leaving Romeo’s body for a brief moment to give us one last reminder of their first dance at the balcony. Juliet took her life on center stage. As she crawled her way back to Romeo, the music and the lights started to fade; and as she took her last breath, the story came to a close.
After The Show
Mills invited members of the audience to come down to the orchestra level for a post-show discussion. Joined by Bloodgood and Krumpe, Mills opened the floor to questions from the patrons. When responding, Mills was very complimentary of the entire production staff, including Director of Production and Stage Manager, Bill Sheffield, who led the stage crew through a perfectly executed opening night.
Later in the talk, Mills shared that the original balcony pas de deux was set to be choreographed on Tuesday September 11, 2001; noting that this production, for him, will always carry some of the weight of this sad moment in our history. After a few more minutes of insightful discussion, Mills said goodnight to the audience and the evening came to an end.
The Last Romeo
Last weekend was different. Earlier this year, Bloodgood announced his retirement from Ballet Austin. Bloodgood, a veteran with the company, took the stage as Romeo for his last time as a company member of Ballet Austin. Bloodgood joined Ballet Austin in 2002, a year after Mills was made artistic director. Over the years, Paul has originated roles in Mills’ pieces, most notably in Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project, amongst many, many others. Bloodgood has toured the globe with the company, performing Mills’ work everywhere from Israel to China, Italy and more. Although he’s traveled the world, Bloodgood’s artistry and charisma as a leading man have been enjoyed the most right here in Austin. From big productions at the Long Center, to cutting-edge displays at Ballet Austin’s Austin Ventures Studio Theater, Bloodgood’s artistic commitment has contributed invaluably, not only to Ballet Austin and the Austin arts scene, but the world of contemporary ballet and the innovation of the art form itself. Ballet Austin and its audience members alike will miss Paul Michael Bloodgood’s presence on stage.
As we learned from our friend Sergei Prokofiev earlier, you’re not always appreciated as an artist. Here, this is not the case. You have left your mark on Austin and the world of dance, and you’ve helped make the world a brighter place.
Thank you, Paul Michael Bloodgood.