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16 years in the making (sort of)
The Fort Wayne Ballet performs Romeo & Juliet
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
“Did you ever think you’d see 15 male dancers on stage at a Fort Wayne Ballet performance, fighting with swords?” asks Karen Gibbons-Brown, the Fort Wayne Ballet’s Artistic Director.
I have to admit, she has me there. Gibbons-Brown thought she’d never see the day either, though for far different reasons.
The occasion is the Fort Wayne Ballet’s production of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, running March 21 and 22. Created in the late 1930s but not staged in the US until 1969, Romeo & Juliet has not been performed in its entirety by the Fort Wayne Ballet since Gibbons-Brown began her tenure at the organization. In fact, the Fort Wayne Ballet has never performed Romeo & Juliet in its entirety. But it was on the program Gibbons-Brown inherited when she first took the position at the Fort Wayne Ballet 16 years ago. “We were supposed to do Romeo & Juliet for the next season. I said ‘I’d love to, but we’re not ready right now,’” Gibbons-Brown remembers.
Romeo & Juliet is technically and artistically challenging for a dancer — though created in the 20th century, the dancing has a lot of classical elements that need to be very precise.
And the score is a little tricky, too, for a dancer. Gibbons-Brown explains that often in ballet, the music serves as a cue on stage — you can tell when the a big lift is coming, for example, because the music swells leading up to it. But like Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, Romeo & Juliet has a standalone score. When Prokofiev wrote the score, he was writing it for the ballet, but he also intended it to work on its own. “The score came first, the choreography came second, as opposed to simultaneously,” says Gibbons-Brown. “It’s beautiful, but the music has its own swells and quiet moments. Just when you think the music should be grand, it’s just the opposite. Just when traditionally there would be a quiet part, the score becomes percussive… You don’t quite know what to expect.”
But it wasn’t so much the movements or the score that concerned Gibbons-Brown. When she decided, sixteen years ago, that the Fort Wayne Ballet wasn’t “ready” to perform Romeo & Juliet, her main concern was much simpler — Prokofiev’s adaptation of the Shakespeare play calls for over a dozen male dancers, and these are significant roles, too, not just extras in a street or party scene. Back then, Fort Wayne Ballet just didn’t have enough men.
Things have changed quite a lot since then, and last year, when a friend of the company asked Gibbons-Brown what her “dream” would be for FWB’s spring performance, the answer was Romeo & Juliet. The cast features the ballet’s professional company dancers and professionally-tracked students — Lucia Rogers and Caitlin Quinn play Juliet; Ernesto Lea Place plays Romeo; David Ingram plays Tybalt and Talbot Rue plays Benvolios, just to name a few — along with several guest dancers such as Justin VanWeest (Mercutio) Barry Kerollis (Romeo) and former Fort Wayne Ballet student Gavin McNally (Count Paris).
Prep work on Romeo and Juliet started nearly a year ago. The ballet required new sets (what’s Romeo & Juliet without a balcony?) and the tone of the story — as we know, there’s no happy ending — called for new costumes. “There’s not a tutu or a tiara in sight,” says Tess Heet, the Fort Wayne Ballet’s costume designer. “Stylistically, it’s very different from other things we’ve done. (For Romeo & Juliet) we’re not using any of the flowery, happy peasant costumes we have. The costumes here are a little more subdued.”
And one of the things the male dancers had to learn was how to fight with swords on stage, something Gibbons-Brown says they took to quite easily. “They loved it,” Gibbons-Brown laughs. “Why not? They’ve been playing ‘Star Wars’ since they were six.”
The dancers began with sticks and moved on to swords (prop swords, of course), receiving more training on the art of the stage fight from John O’Connell, head of the theater department at IPFW (O’Connell is certified in that kind of thing). “The ability to dance and sword fight is a skill you need to have as a guy,” adds Gibbons-Brown. “Generally, in ballet, the girls don’t get to have sword fights on stage.”
The three performance of Romeo & Juliet will feature the Fort Wayne Philharmonic led by Associate Conductor Sameer Patel.
The whole production is quite an undertaking for the Fort Wayne Ballet. The company has done performances that feature a large cast and lots of people on stage — The Nutcracker, after all, isn’t known for its small cast, and also boasts some big sets and elaborate costumes. But Romeo & Juliet is a little different. Artistically, the dancers at the Fort Wayne Ballet have been ready for years; beyond that, says Gibbons-Brown, it was just a matter of commitment. “Once we were given the opportunity to do it… well, then it’s like the chips were on the table. To give our dancers the chance to perform a ballet like this was just too exciting to put on hold any longer.”
The Fort Wayne Ballet with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic presents Romeo & Juliet
Friday, March 21 at 8 pm
Saturday, March 22 at 2:30 pm and 8 pm
Arts United Center,
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $30 for adults; $25 for seniors and youth; $15 for children. Premium seating is limited and available at $5 more per ticket.
Before the opening night performance on Friday, Fort Wayne Ballet will host “An Evening in Verona” starting at 6:30 and lasting until 7:45pm. This pre-show cocktail party, catered by Catablu, will include live music and an open bar. All are welcome to attend this pre-show party in the Ian Rolland Gallery, with tickets available at $15 per person.
Immediately following the Saturday matinee performance, audience members have the opportunity to attend a Family Masquerade Party. This is a fun-filled opportunity for children and adults alike to meet the dancers, enjoy the beautifully designed costumes up close, create a special craft to take home, and receive a special treat. Tickets for the Family Masquerade
Party are $8 a person.
Tickets for the performances, “An Evening in Verona” and the Family Masquerade Party can all be purchased at the Arts United ArtsTix Community Box Office, 303 East Main Street, or by calling the box office at 260-422-4226.
Tickets are also available online at tickets.artstix.org.
For more info, call the Fort Wayne Ballet at 260-484-9646 or visit fortwayneballet.org.