Small companies with a big vision
Dominic Walsh and Mercury Baroque "supersize" Romeo & Juliet
You only need to look around at the cast of characters in Dominic Walsh's studio to get an idea of the nature of hisRomeo & Juliet, a work premiered in 2006 and being re-mounted Thursday night (with performances Saturday and Sunday). Antoine Plante, artistic director of co-presenter Mercury Baroque, sits at the front sorting through Vivaldi, ready to rehearse two opera singers, Ana Trevino-Godfrey, the nurse, and Gabriel Preisser, Lord Capulet. Mercury Baroque will be playing period instruments live for the show.
Actor Jim Johnson, reprising his role as the Friar, helps the dancers with their lines. Yes, they will be talking, adding key moments of text that bring us back into the thick of Shakespeare's epic masterpiece. "Speaking the text more clearly and honestly is the plan today," says Johnson. "Projection and moment-to-moment acting choices are key as well."
In a corner, Ty Parmenter (Romeo) and Felicia McBride (Juliet) navigate through the intricate moves of Walsh's choreography for the balcony pas de deux. "Keep it rich and generous. You don't want it to get hollow-boned," Walsh instructs McBride, an apprentice.
Only the Bach Choir of Houston, who sing and mingle among the dancers, are missing.
It's an ambitious show with big time collaborators, including costume designer Fabio Toblini and set designer Jorge Ballina, who has created a morphing fabric structure that shifts from balcony to bedroom. There are 30 performers in all, and only three from the 2006 production. Think of it on the scale of an opera, except dance is the main medium. For a small company, Walsh is fond of large-size visions.
"It was time to revisit, improve, edit and recognize what was really good about it. This is an important work for our company and Mercury Baroque," Walsh says, from his sleek Dunlavy studio. "We broke new ground, and now we have the opportunity to put the finishing touches on it."
Walsh's attachment to the text dates to his early days at Houston Ballet in 1987, where he played an extra in Ben Stevenson's Romeo & Juliet. Later on he danced the roles of Mercutio and Romeo, re-reading the text each time. "The play strips down the human experience to the primal reality of life," Walsh says. "It's rich and poignant, and speaks to impatience, loyalty and sacrifice through the eyes of its primal characters."
Plante was ready to take a second look as well. "We have matured so much in our organizations," he says. And he's right.
Walsh managed to snag the famous Paris Opera ballerina Marie-Agnes Gillot for his fall show. He is one of three choreographers selected for Ballet Austin's New American Talent and his company is the only U.S. troupe to perform Matthew Borne's Swan Lake pas de deux (which won Domenico Luciano a standout performance in Pointe magazine). Plante's strides include collaborating with noted French director Pascal Rambert for Jean-Baptiste Lully's Armide, bringing in Canada's Le Voix Baroques, and an expanded season.
During the year leading up to the premiere in 2006, Walsh and Plante spent hours listening to Vivaldi to choose the right music for the each scene. "There was a time when I had 96 Vivaldi CDs on my iPod," Plante says. "It's a true collaboration, and we both have big stakes in it." Both artistic directors realized it took an enormous amount of effort to get it right, and after just two performances back, it didn't seem to make sense not to give it another go.
For this production Walsh surrendered the role of Romeo to Parmenter, in his first season with the company. "I needed to dedicate all my energy to shaping and molding the work this time," Walsh says. "Ty is a great choice and this is an opportunity for him to grow as a dancer and actor."
Parmenter can relate to true love. A newlywed, he is married to fellow company member Marissa Leigh Gomer, whom he describes as that "beautiful woman in the corner." Gomer plays Lady Capulet, a key role in Walsh's version. The relationship between Tybalt, danced by the luminous Luciano, and Lady Capulet is amplified and explored more deeply than in traditional treatments of the story. Walsh created some of the most compelling choreography of his career in these passages.
The choreographer enjoys tweaking Juliet's role. "This is my first real character role," says McBride, who bears a slight resemblance to Olivia Hussey, the star of the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film. "This is very different than being a snowflake."
She prepared for the role by re-reading the text and watching the Zeffirelli and the 1996 Buzz Luhrmann films. McBride and Parmenter have not watched their predecessors. "Dominic wants us to learn the piece fresh," McBride says. "The choreography actually leads us through the emotions in the piece, so in that way, it makes it easier to figure out what Dominic wants. It's all in the steps and music."
McBride and Parmenter danced together in Mozart's Trilogy earlier this season. "But nothing compared to this," sighs Parmenter, thinking about the task ahead of him. "We were a little shy at first, but now it feels natural," McBride says. "The experience makes me miss being in a relationship and what it's like to totally open up to someone."