I’ve never seen the Detroit Opera House as lively as it was last Saturday night. It was the second day of the largest snowfall of the winter season, and, while waiting in line outside the Opera House entrance, I could sense the solidarity that the weather had created. Some guests stood shivering in short miniskirts and pencil heels, others had given up and worn their bulky snow boots, but we had all braced the outdoors and made it here. After trudging through slush and unplowed sidewalks, we were all ready.
From Feb. 8 to Feb. 11, the American Ballet Theatre came to Detroit to perform one of the most classic love stories of all time: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The 1938 ballet, composed by Sergei Prokofiev, is a classic in its own right, and these shows demonstrate its timeliness. They were co-sponsored by the University Musical Society, accompanied by the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra and conducted by Charles Barker. For Saturday night’s show, Romeo was played by David Hallberg, a principal dancer with the ABT since 2006, and Juliet was played by Isabella Boylston, principal since 2014. Principal dancers for the other showings included Misty Copeland, Herman Cornejo, Hee Seo, Cory Stearns, Stella Abrera and James Whiteside.
So much of Shakespeare’s genius lies in his dialogues, and I was worried about how a ballet with no speaking would be able to represent this. I had never been so wrong. Whatever Kenneth MacMillan’s rendition of “Romeo and Juliet” lacked in dialogue, it made up for in raw, heartbreaking emotion.
The contrast in Romeo and Juliet’s personalities was apparent 10 minutes into the three-hour production. Boylston, as Juliet, gracefully leaped across the stage in a baby blue dress, playing pranks on her beloved Nurse, played by Nancy Raffa. At one point, Boylston jumped right into the Nurse’s lap, soliciting laughs from the audience. Sitting there, with her arms wrapped around the Nurse and her feet curled under her thighs, Boylston was the perfect picture of childlike innocence. She hadn’t met Romeo yet, thus her life was untainted with messy love affairs and broken hearts.
The moment that Romeo and Juliet met each other was the moment that I realized how wonderful this production was about to be. When Hallberg laid his eyes on Boylston for the first time, he just stared. The stage was full of whipping skirts and laughter, but the section of the stage that Hallberg and Boylston occupied was frozen in time. Hallberg was awestruck; it seemed as if every limb of his body was focused on Boylston. Boylston’s naivety suddenly disappeared, and she adopted a sense of beautiful dignity instead. For a full thirty seconds, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the couple. Finally, they both realized that their love was forbidden. After dancing tentatively with each other, Hallberg and Boylston parted with a sense of unfinished business.
Every subsequent time that Hallberg and Boylston met, varying emotions were reflected through their dancing. After meeting at the ball for the second time, Hallberg and Boylston embarked on a passionate and slow dance, each reveling in each other’s bodies and movements. Both afraid of being caught by their families, their dance was filled with haste and passion, like they wanted to squeeze out their last moments together before time ran out. In the famous balcony scene, Boylston and Hallberg’s slow movements dripped with romance and love. Boylston held her arabesques for what seemed like minutes at a time, letting the audience soak in her form and grace. When Romeo realized that he would be banished from Verona, Boylston and Hallberg’s dance was filled with sorrow and longing for a better fate.
All this built-up emotion crescendoed beautifully in the final scene of the play. Romeo, upon seeing Juliet’s body and thinking she was dead, stopped moving. Hallberg’s face worked with emotion and his limbs froze. The audience could sense his helplessness and desperation at seeing his lover dead without warning. He rushed to Boylston’s body, held her in his arms and faced the audience head-on. It felt like the audience wanted to call out to Hallberg and help him; his pain seemed unbearable.
After Romeo committed suicide, Juliet awoke from her slumber and saw Romeo’s lifeless body beside her. Sitting on the crypt in a pale pink slip, aghast that she could have caused this, Boylston was the picture of vulnerability. This one scene perfectly captured the whole production. Brimming with sentiment, sorrow and love, the ABT sprinkled more emotion into a play that was already heartbreaking to begin with. “Romeo and Juliet” was ravishing for the eyes and even more touching for the heart.