Give yourself a gift this morning, Bacon friends – listen to one of the greatest rock ballads of all time – “Romeo and Juliet” (Dire Straits). Then stay tuned for my interview with Paul Vasterling, Artistic Director of Nashville Ballet, about next weekend’s performances of “the greatest love story of all time.”
I’m so thrilled for you to spend some time in the Bacon neighborhood today, Paul! Thank you for taking the time!
So let me start here – Why did you choose to include “Romeo and Juliet” in this year’s Nashville Ballet season? Why does the story speak to you?
As a teenager I was obsessed with the Zeffirelli film of Shakespeare. I mean obsessed – I played (on the piano) the Nino Rota film score incessantly (Remember “A Time For Us”?)
Later when I was exposed to Prokofiev’s magnificent music I always wanted to choreograph it – it was one of those dreams one has as a young choreographer. Prokofiev really got it right! Anyway, I had the opportunity to make the work in 2004 when I choreographed and directed my version for Nashville Ballet. Since its premiere it’s been performed in Nashville three times and has also been fully produced (new sets and costumes) at the Teatro Argentino de La Plata in Argentina and by Ballet Manila in the Philippines. Our last go at it was in 2013 so I thought it was time to bring it back to our company as it is today: most of our current dancers haven’t danced my version, three out of my four principals haven’t performed the roles before. It’s been fun and rewarding to see what the new dancers bring to the roles and also how Mollie Sansone, who danced Juliet in 2013, is layering her dramatic and physical abilities into an even more powerful performance than she gave last time. I’m also excited to see how Kayla Rowser approaches her first Juliet and how Brett Sjoblom and Nicolas Scheuer tackle their first Romeos.
What do you hope an audience member might feel when she leaves the theater? What do you think he might talk about?
I think “R&J” as we call it connects us back to the time when we discovered love for the first time – that obsessive, all-consuming, breathless feeling when it felt like you had one story to tell and it was that of you and your love. There existed nothing more and nothing less than that moment of being in love. Hopefully everyone has experienced that quite wonderful feeling, even though it’s not realistic in the long run. Last summer I was in France on a fellowship but didn’t bring enough novels in English, so I was desperate for a book. In the airport in Toulouse I picked up the first book in English I saw (there were very, very few available) and it happened to be Julian Barnes’ The Only Story. And as happens so many times in life – I discovered something that would prepare me for my work on an upcoming ballet. Barnes’ novel tells the story of a nineteen-year-old man and a middle-aged woman falling in love; Barnes plays out the love over many years. The R&J-like obsession between the two lovers wanes in a way, but it also never leaves their ‘only story’ which is established in those first days, weeks, months when they were freshly in love.
Meanwhile, you sent me David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow, I think perhaps in preparation for R&J! [Bacon readers: you won’t be surprised to know that Jennifer is a regular supplier of literature to me; she is very thoughtful about finding works that might inspire and I’m very grateful!] The book is another great riff on this long-told story of young love, this time from the perspective of a contemporary Holden Caufield-ish central character. His cynicism about other people is slowly broken down during a summer romance; Nicholls cleverly parallels the modern take on Romeo and Juliet with an amateur production of the original Shakespeare.
This ‘imprinting’ of romantic love is certainly what first attracted me to the story, both as a play, a film and then a ballet. As time has gone on though, I’ve come to understand the story further as one about prejudice against the “other” (the Capulets and Montagues hate each other without reason), the tragedy that happens when two “others” fall in love, and this basic flaw in our humanity: our need to find someone “lesser” to dislike and ridicule, or our fear of difference.
I love to hear about how your understanding of R&J has changed over time. Or if not changed – shifted in emphasis. (And of course you know I love finding books for you, Paul!)
What’s your favorite part of the show?
A difficult question! The two major duets (in ballet parlance: “pas de deux”) illustrate some of the breathlessness I’ve mentioned and the music is quite beautiful. The fighting scenes contrast the love scenes with violence and both are quite human and passionate.
How is the performance of Shakespeare – unspoken, through dance – still “Shakespeare”? Is something essential lost?
Of course words are of utter importance in Shakespeare, they layer and turn and you get more from them each time you hear them. But they have been (and are still) a guide for me as I put the steps, movements and gestures together for this ballet. While we don’t have parallel gestures for Shakespeare’s words, we do have his language in our heads as we make the work. I always try to go back to the text when I’m restaging the work, it inspires different ideas every time. So I guess the short answer there is yes, it’s definitely Shakespeare’s story abstracted through movement.
What is the history of R&J as a ballet?
The initial premiere of Prokofiev’s score was in 1938 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and the ballet was extensively re-worked and then premiered in 1940 in Leningrad with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky and Galina Ulanova as Juliet. This version is still performed in Russia today, and is one of the ballets that the Bolshoi Ballet used to introduce itself to the West in the 1950s, to rapturous acclaim. “Western” versions are those by John Cranko and The Stuttgart Ballet in 1962 and Kenneth Macmillan and the Royal Ballet (London) in 1965. Huge kudos need to be given to the original librettists Sergei Radlow, Prokofiev and Lavrovsky as the score, using leitmotif and consistent thematic material, virtually tells the story, and to me indicated what went where choreographically.
How have you changed your version of R&J over the years? How have the costumes changed, if at all? How much do costumes matter?
Our production was built in the 1990s, the costumes were designed by David Heuvel, who also designed Nashville Ballet’s “Swan Lake.” Heuvel is known for his lush and opulent looks with plenty of saturated, rich color. Of course, many of the costumes have had to be re-made for wear and tear over the years but the design has remained virtually the same. The production design matters a lot as it sets the time and place. We were going for a general or non-specific renaissance look, particularly as I was so into the Zeffirelli film, which has that type of atmosphere.
As for choreographic changes, I usually re-approach the work from my own “maturing” lens (it’s been 15 years since I created the work) and also take inspiration from the new dancers in the roles. I try to give them agency in the re-creation, especially since it’s a very character driven ballet.
Please give us a glimpse of what preparation for the show is like…
The dancers and ballet masters (rehearsal directors) have been working on this since August 5. All of the steps had to be taught (and there are a lot of them in this ballet), and all of the acting scenes (which are blended into the dance scenes) staged during that time. In addition, we had our fight director come in to teach the dancers the fencing and sword fighting which is another whole technique unto itself. I was going for a really raw feeling in the violence between the feuding families, so there’s more than sword play – there’s brawling and street fighting and all of that has to be carefully coordinated so that it can look real but remain safe for the performers.
In between all of that we had to take the time for the choreographer of “A Streetcar Named Desire” to stage 20 scenes of that ballet, coming in November!
Choosing the Romeos and Juliets is pretty easy really. We have such fantastic dancers here at Nashville Ballet (see above) but it is a grueling ballet especially for the men dancing Romeo; it takes loads of stamina and lots of rehearsals to build up that stamina.
Would you tell us a little bit about the rest of the season? Where does R&J fit in your vision for this year’s season?
It’s a deep, interesting and fun season with many stories to tell. I always design our seasons with a broad appeal to all kinds of audiences. After R&J we perform another Prokofiev classic, “Peter and the Wolf,” which is geared specifically to families. Soon after, we premiere “Streetcar”; we are the first American company to perform this European adaptation of the Tennessee Williams story, directed and choreographed by women, and focusing the story through the lens of the character of Blanche. December is for “Nashville’s Nutcracker” of course! In February, we will premiere 4 brand new works with music and choreography by young voices from here and abroad. Premiering and creating new work that speaks to now is a Nashville ballet specialty! In April we go much lighter with a program featuring a fantastically fun and physical ballet to the music of the Rolling Stones, and in May we have our experimental creative studio series, Emergence, which features freshly made music and dance and emphasizes artistic process. In between all of that also please look for our future artist showcases by NB2, our second company, also fresh and fantastic, and our Family Day at the Nashville Ballet studios.
It’s a terrific season, Paul. Finally – I love to talk to you about books. What are you reading right now?
I’m actually reading a few of books of poetry; after working on “Lucy Negro Redux” and being immersed in poetry last season, I’m really into it. The first, C.P. Cavafy “Complete Poems” translated by Daniel Mendelssohn, was inspired by a play I’m obsessed with right now – “The Inheritance”; one of Cavafy’s poems is quoted in the script and that led me to the book. The second is a Portuguese poet I found on vacation, Fernando Pessoa, “English Poetry” and finally “Spoon River Anthology” by Edgar Lee Masters, that you gave me! All three poets have a lyricism that is attractive and inspiring.
Thank you again so much for stopping in… see you at the Ballet next weekend!! xoxo
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For more information and to buy tickets, click here. Performances are the weekend of September 19th at TPAC.
Here’s the trailer for this year’s R&J…