Grand Rapids Ballet to present timeless love story “Romeo & Juliet” at DeVos Performance Hall
By Marketing & Development Specialist Meghan Dolata
Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB), Michigan’s only professional ballet company, is looking forward to the first performance of 2023 as the world premiere production of Romeo & Juliet approaches. Taking place at DeVos Performance Hall February 17-19, 2023, the perfect Valentine’s Day weekend. With live accompaniment from the Grand Rapids Symphony performing Prokofiev’s ravishing score. The timeless story comes to life with enthralling sword fighting and the excitement of young love, all leading toward an emotional end. We sat down with Artistic Director James Sofranko for a Behind The Curtain look at the creative process of Romeo & Juliet.
Interview with Artistic Director James Sofranko:
Romeo and Juliet is the first full-length ballet you’ve choreographed; why did you pick this story?
I have always been in love with the Romeo and Juliet story, beginning in middle school with West Side Story, in high school at the movies (Baz Luhrmann), seeing the Royal Ballet’s production (Kenneth Macmillan) on video, and finally performing Mercutio in San Francisco Ballet’s production by director Helgi Tomasson. The story is timeless and is a masterpiece of theater crafted by Shakespeare. The tragedy is so powerful that you can imagine the two families of Verona shaken to their very core by the actions of their children. Our experiences with this story can allow us to examine where we hold grudges and lead us down a different path than the Montagues and Capulets.
And then there’s the music.
I have been listening to this score since I was a kid. I remember wearing out my cassette tape of the recording! Prokofiev is a genius, he pulls out so much emotion, and all I had to do as a choreographer was listen. It guided me and told me what to do. The world is deeply indebted to Prokofiev for creating what has become one of the greatest ballet scores of all time.
What were some of the challenges of creating this production?
Grand Rapids Ballet does not own sets and costumes for Romeo and Juliet, so the first challenge was to find a production that suited my taste and was available to rent! After finding a production I liked at Ballet Arizona, the next challenge was figuring out how many costumes I had available for each scene, what props, how many swords, how big the set pieces were, etc. We received the costumes in January and only received the sets and props a week before the opening. Too late to change any choreography, so I had to know what was coming.
There are a lot of “character roles” in Romeo and Juliet – roles that require dancers or former dancers – but not a lot of actual dancing, so I had to look beyond the company members. For roles such as the parents of Romeo and Juliet and Juliet’s nurse, I tapped some of GRB’s retired dancers and even teachers in the Grand Rapids Ballet School. In fact, Kevin Carpenter, who plays the Prince of Verona, was the first professional dancer hired by Grand Rapids Ballet in 1993. It is great to have Kevin back on the stage with us where his career began.
Your brother Joe did the fight choreography. What was it like working with him?
Joe is a theater guy, and not only did his fight choreography experience make me think of him immediately for this project, but also his knowledge of the play. Joe won the national Shakespeare competition in high school and has performed in many productions. He even produced a comedy series called “Complete Works” in reference to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. We had never worked together like this before, so it was new, but I had no doubt it would be great, and it was. He lives in Ashland, Oregon, and came out in November to work with us. We staged all the fight scenes in only five days, so it was a whirlwind for the dancers to learn the basics of sword fighting and the actual choreography for the scenes. During the street brawl, we have five fights happening simultaneously, including broadswords, daggers, and rapiers, so it was a lot of choreography to learn. I appreciate Joe’s knowledge of the intention behind each character, and it helped the dancers immerse themselves in their roles and perform the fights more authentically.
What was the process like to create this ballet?
I knew it would be a monumental task to create a ballet of this size, so I started early, back in August, and squeezed in rehearsals whenever I could get anyone available so that I could feel like I was starting to cross things off the list. It helped that I had already created the balcony pas de deux in 2020 for our “Eternal Desire” program. I think that making that pas de deux on Yuka Oba-Muschiana, and Josué Justiz gave me the confidence to create the full ballet. Those two took to the scene and the roles so easily that it was almost a foregone conclusion that we’d do the full ballet one day!
I mapped out the three acts and listed each scene. I read the play and discussed all the production elements with my wife, Cindy, who served as my choreographic assistant. I listened to the music constantly (even my kids know it well now!) Dawnell Dryja, our ballet master, would help arrange the rehearsal schedule and work with me to iron out the logistics of casting and costumes, along with our wardrobe manager Ron Altman, and also learn all the steps and run rehearsals. John Varineau, conductor, would meet with me, and we’d go through the score scene by scene and talk about which repeats we would or would not take and what tempos were desirable.
And then it just came down to working with the dancers in the studio, creating the steps, the blocking, and the acting, and fitting it to the music. I am so grateful to all of the staff who helped me get this production off the ground, but also to all the dancers, without whom none of this would have been possible. They are indeed the heart of a dance company, and I was so pleased with their willingness to assist in creating this production. It was a fulfilling journey to bring this story to life, and I hope everyone will be inspired by the journey of Romeo and Juliet, who strive for nothing more than to be able to love each other.
Following Romeo & Juliet, our Grand Rapids Ballet School Junior Company will perform a fan favorite, Wizard of Oz, at our Peter Martin Wege Theatre March 10-12 and 18-19, 2023. Our season continues throughout March with our annual production of Jumpstart 2023. We will close our season with the most anticipated performance of Ballet + Broadway, featuring choreography from three-time Tony Award-winning Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.
Tickets are on sale for the remainder of our 2022-2023 season. For more information on all the exciting things happening at the ballet or to purchase tickets today, you can visit our website at grballet.com or call our box office at 616-454-4771 ext. 110.