Washington Ballet’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’ hits Kennedy Center for Valentine’s Day

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Romeo & Juliet' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Valentine’s Day is almost here, so what better way for all you lovebirds to celebrate than by watching the most famous star-crossed lovers in the history of the stage?

The Washington Ballet presents John Cranko’s 1962 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s 1594 tragedy “Romeo & Juliet” at the Kennedy Center Opera House for six shows from Feb. 14-18.

“Singles night, date night, married to celebrate anniversary night, friends night — it’s really for everyone,” artistic director Julie Kent told WTOP. “Cranko, who was the artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet … made this incredibly beautiful, inspiring, heartbreaking production on his muses, Marcia Haydée and Ray Barra in the original cast. It tells the story with great clarity.”

Set in Verona, Italy, during the Middle Ages, young star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet fall in love despite hailing from two notoriously warring families — the Montagues and Capulets.

“It starts out with Romeo daydreaming and he ends up going to a party,” actor Brooklyn Mack said. “Plans change when he lays eyes on Juliet. He’s completely taken with her from the first look and convinces her to steal away with him a little while. They get further acquainted, and it’s pretty much love at first sight. The only problem is he’s from the rival family and they’ve been feuding for quite some time. … That ultimately spells disaster for our relationship.”

This production marks the first time that Cranko’s version has appeared at the Kennedy Center since the 1984-1985 season, when the Joffrey Ballet performed it with a young Kent.

“I played a townsperson throwing fruit,” Kent laughed. “I was probably a sophomore at Churchill High School at the time. … Then, six months later, I was an apprentice with [American Ballet Theatre] dancing a different production of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ that I went on to dance my entire career. Actually, I gave my farewell performance dancing ‘Romeo & Juliet’ by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, who was greatly influenced by this one, which was the predecessor.”

Now, it’s time for a new generation. Brooklyn Mack and Maki Onuki will play the leads on opening night and again on Saturday in a series of rotating casts, including EunWon Lee with Gian Carlo Perez, Corey Landolt with Venus Villa, and Jonathan Jordan with Ayano Kimura.

“We have a great connection,” Onuki said. “He’s an amazing partner. He’s very strong, and I get to just be free and just let him do the job, because I usually do too much, I think.”

“Maki is incredible,” Mack said. “It’s a dream any time dancing with her. She’s an amazing technician, an amazing artist. She’s the whole package. So when you’re lucky enough to dance with her, it’s really nice. It makes what I have to do all the more enjoyable and easy. … She looks you deep in the eye and you just lose yourself. You are in the moment 100 percent.”

Along the way, Cranko’s choreography is set to the music of Sergei Prokofiev, performed live by the Washington Ballet Orchestra, which will be conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron.

“There’s no written language to interpret; it’s all body language,” Kent said. “Prokofiev’s score is just perfect. It’s completely emotional; you have leitmotifs, so you know when Tybalt enters, Juliet has her theme, Romeo has his theme, they have their balcony pas that comes back in the end but in different keys and with a slightly different intention. It’s a beautiful marriage of story and movement and music. You don’t have to worry about iambic pentameter.”

While there is no verbal language to remember, the dancing itself can be quite challenging.

“Just like handwriting, people are righty or lefty, jumpers or turners, so everybody has to go the same way,” Kent said. “People like me are ‘Zoolander’ [and can’t go left], but it varies person to person. Some can manage both sides well and some have a dominant side. … Notoriously, Cranko’s pas de deux work is very challenging, a lot of intricate, complicated lifts.”

These complicated moves are set against a lavish period backdrop, featuring sets and costumes by Susan Benson, lighting design by Robert Thomson and staging by Jane Bourne.

“It’s a beautiful production that we have borrowed from the National Ballet of Canada with exquisite colors and silks and velvet and really beautiful production [values],” Kent said. “You have sword fighting, and you have the atmosphere of Verona with all of the townspeople.”

These sword fights build to the play’s iconic conclusion, stressing the tragedy of tribal hatred.

“It’s a timeless tale created in the Middle Ages, and here we are, still figuring out ways that we can express the human condition,” Kent said. “The innocence of the two people involved and how they get caught up in everybody else’s problems, prejudices and all the other [conflicts].”

“Every family, every generation, there’s always somebody you bring home that your family doesn’t like,” Mack added. “But when two people love each other, there’s no stopping that.”

This romantic hope amid almost certain heartbreak is what makes this tragic tale so cathartic.

“Everything almost comes together at the end — and then it doesn’t,” Kent said. “No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I always think there’s hope that it will work! And when it doesn’t, it’s just so heartbreaking. … It really is a wonderful realization of Shakespeare’s tale. … It’s a huge moment for the company to present a production of this caliber. It’s a big statement of our aspirations, talent and ability. It’s very exciting. We’re anxious to share it with everyone.”

Click here for more. Hear our full chat with Julie Kent, Brooklyn Mack and Maki Onuki below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Julie Kent, Brooklyn Mack, Maki Onuki (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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