A rose by any other name…

Despite its modern-day title, the RWB swears Romeo + Juliet smells as sweet as Shakespeare’s original

It’s 400 some years old, but the Bard’s tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers is as relevant as ever.

André Lewis, artistic director of Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, says the company physically expresses and cultivates emotions that are authentically human in this season’s performance of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.

“The content of this story, the power it has to affect people’s thinking about love, are brought to life by the RWB, which has the ability to put people on stage with the dancers,” Lewis says. “Nothing compares to the intensity.”

The RWB’s design scheme for the title of the production includes an addition sign instead of the word “and”, a stylization made familiar in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film. Lewis, who was named artistic director of the RWB that same year, explains the ballet is being done in the classical style and has not undergone any modernizations past the title.

“This ballet is pretty much the same whenever it is performed, but the dancers are the ones who are different and bring something special to each performance. Ultimately, you try and instill what the choreographer wanted,” he says.

Lewis may be the best person to translate Rudi van Dantzig’s choreography into an emotional connection with the audience.  

In 1967, van Dantzig’s updated choreography to Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, which had premiered in 1938, was first performed by the Dutch National Ballet. In 1981, Arnold Spohr, then artistic director of the RWB, invited van Dantzig to Winnipeg to work with the company on its production of the famous tale. Lewis, an RWB company dancer who had worked with van Dantzig previously on Four Last Songs, danced the roles of Mercutio and Romeo. 

Lewis joined the RWB in 1979, and was only in his second year there as a dancer when he was invited to take on the role of Romeo opposite Teresa Bacall. This time, Juliet is danced by Amanda Green, who was made principal dancer just last year. Romeo will be played by guest artist Liang Xing, described by Lewis as essentially a principal dancer with the company.

A few years after van Dantzig came to Winnipeg, Lewis received a fax from van Dantzig requesting that he join him in Florence to direct the ballet there. 

“Rudi liked my relationship to the work, and invited me to work with him on it,” Lewis says. “I had danced various roles in the production. I had coached Evelyn Hart in dancing it and she was incredible. I had a really good understanding of it.” 

This time around, the decision to perform the piece was Lewis’s.

“It’s a beautiful story, it’s so touching,” Lewis says. “Especially around Valentine’s Day, it’s a great first experience for young people at the ballet. It probably won’t be back for six to eight years, so now is their chance to see it.”

Published in Volume 68, Number 18 of The Uniter (January 29, 2014)

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