Jean-Christophe Maillot

Sweet tragedy: rehearsing ‘R&J’

James Canfield brings his passionate version of Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed Romeo & Juliet back to the Oregon Ballet Theatre stage

Quick, for the best seats in the house at the ballet: what is the most frequently performed ballet in the world?

The Nutcracker, you say?

That’s correct. But Romeo and Juliet, “America’s front porch ballet,” as former Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal called it at a conference in 1994, is right up there, along with Swan Lake and Giselle.

That conference took place in San Francisco and was connected to the premiere of Helgi Tomasson’s lavish version of R&J for San Francisco Ballet, which was memorable in part for Christopher Stowell’s impudent bravura performance as Mercutio, several years before Stowell became artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

At the conference we explored many renditions of the ballet, some set to Tchaikovsky (Kent Stowell’s for Pacific Northwest Ballet) one set to Delius (Antony Tudor’s, on film, and I’d kill to see it restored), most of them set to Sergei Prokofiev, including Toni Pimble’s for the Eugene Ballet and James Canfield’s passionate and emotionally satisfying take on Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers for Oregon Ballet Theatre, which the company is reviving this weekend and next, beginning at 7:30 pm Saturday at Keller Auditorium.

James Canfield (left) rehearses Peter Franc as Romeo and Xuan Cheng as Juliet. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

James Canfield (left) rehearses Peter Franc as Romeo and Xuan Cheng as Juliet. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

All of the ballets listed above, when done in traditional form, contain spectacle, pageantry, and, with the possible exception of The Nutcracker, great ballerina roles. Romeo and Juliet has a number of terrific male roles as well, particularly that trio of Veronese hooligans—Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio; and, like Shakespeare’s play, some character parts for comic relief. The marketplace scenes give the corps de ballet opportunities to dance, and to act.  Like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, the story is familiar, and so is the music, which makes for good box office.

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