Ballet Stars
Misty Copeland as Juliet with American Ballet Theatre. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Valentine's Day makes February the perfect month for ballet companies to perform Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's famous tale of star-crossed lovers. A few companies presented their versions earlier this month and many are on their way in the next few weeks. We rounded up eight companies including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The Washington Ballet, Les Ballet des Monte Carlo, Orlando Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Carolina Ballet and Ballet BC to find out how they're using this classic ballet to celebrate the holiday of love.

New York City Ballet

A 12-performance run of Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet comes in the middle of New York City Ballet's winter season, spanning from February 13-23 at the Koch Theater in New York City. This year's production marks the debuts of corps dancers Harrison Coll and Peter Walker as Romeo, and former Pointe cover star Indiana Woodward will be making her debut as Juliet. Below, hear Tiler Peck, who will dance Juliet alongside Zachary Catazarro, point out the tricky technical moments in this role and explain what makes it so special to her.

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Ballet Careers
A scene from Stephen Mill's "Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project." Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Ballet excels at defying gravity. Lightness, ethereality, wispiness, symmetry, lineal order, chivalry and blissful endings to well-worn tales bestow on ballet a reputation as an art form that embraces divine beauty and design. But themes of grief, trauma, death, war, annihilation, exploitation, abuse, oppression and genocide do not frequently skim the surface sur la pointe. Bearing weighty burdens has traditionally found a place in the realm of modern dance in works such as Martha Graham's Lamentation, or Paul Taylor's image of Armageddon in Last Look.

But beyond shimmering tutus and pristine arabesques, there are other reasons why heavy issues seldom appear on the ballet stage. Taking on a serious subject requires a serious treatment. A ballet about terrorism could easily trivialize the subject through melodrama or prettification. Classical vocabulary was born from noble demeanor in the royal courts; in the wrong hands, it can seem limited in registering the mood of a sordid subject or for expressing disturbing behavior. Add to that the industry's marketing directors and board members, tempted towards steering directors and choreographers away from challenging ballets for fear of poor ticket sales.


New York Theatre Ballet performs "Dark Elegies." Photo by Darial Sneed, Courtesy New York Theatre Ballet.

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This week, the Australian Ballet's Kevin Jackson will make his debut with American Ballet Theatre, dancing the familiar role of Des Grieux in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. Mr. Jackson's performance marks only the second time that a dancer from the Australian Ballet has guested with American Ballet Theatre. With his ABT debut around the corner (you can catch him on June 4th and June 6th), Mr. Jackson spoke to Pointe about interpreting the role of Des Grieux, partnering Xiomara Reyes, and the modern significance of the story ballet.

 

PT: Can you talk about your technical approach to the role?  

KJ: Des Grieux requires that I be very technically secure. I must ensure that my landings and transitions are as smooth as possible. I must be centered and focused, yet not too academic—the upper body must be free from tension and held with a sense of air and grace. The solos in Manon require that I reach beyond simply dancing the role: I have to express it.

PT: Have you received any notable coaching at ABT that helped you reconsider aspects of your performance? 

KJ: I feel very fortunate to have danced and rehearsed this role many times, and I have had many good coaches. At ABT I have had the opportunity to work with Kevin MacKenzie and [Ballet Master] Keith Roberts. Throughout the process, Kevin said many helpful things to me, including, "If you’re feeling the tension, you’re not expressing the intention." That correction allowed me to play with the music and helped me push my partnering skills and musicality to a new level.

PT: How do you approach the emotional portrayal of Des Grieux?  

KJ: Des Grieux is a complex character with many different layers to tap. He is essentially a good guy, studying poetry and religion. When he meets Manon, he falls deeply in love with her. I imagine she is the first woman he has ever taken notice of, and it changes his life. He becomes torn between his overwhelming love for Manon and the morals he once believed in.

PT: What are some challenges presented by the role? 

KJ: It can be challenging to portray Des Grieux with some emotional backbone, especially in the second act. It’s all about timing and communication with your partner. As you work on the partnering, you develop an inner dialogue that is unique to each Manon and Des Grieux.

 


PT: Are there any dancers who you have idolized in the role of Des Grieux?  

KJ: I have seen clips of the original Des Grieux, Sir Anothony Dowell, and love the fact that we can see where it all began! Steven Heathcote [the other Australian Ballet principal to guest with ABT] was a gorgeous Des Grieux, and has given me some great advice and feedback. I'm also extremely excited to see Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle's interpretation while here in NYC.

PT: What is it like to dance with Xiomara Reyes? 

KJ: Xiomara is a seasoned star and I'm so blessed to have this opportunity to dance with her. She is a caring, passionate and communicative dance partner. She has a freedom and abandonment within her movement, and I can already tell that she will be a very giving partner on stage. She has been respectful to my thoughts and is making this process, though nerve racking, an absolute joy.

PT: Do you think the story ballet tradition is still vital?

KJ: When we watch dance, like when we watch any form of entertainment, we want to be taken away from our lives and transported to another time and place. Story ballets are a great catalyst for that, as dancers create an affinity with music, body language and movement to tell a story and take audiences on an adventure. I think in the information age we live in, it's a relief to sit and listen to beautiful music and watch uninterrupted, live dancing. In my eyes, the tradition is absolutely vital.

 

Click here for tickets to see Kevin Jackson perform with ABT!

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