The region’s oldest ballet company is taking on “Romeo and Juliet,” the classic tale of love, family strife and grief with a cast of local dancers and a new score — one of the first to be produced for the play in decades.
The City Opera Ballet’s production stars Bellevue native David Strong as Romeo and brings International Ballet Theatre’s Allison Epsom to the company for a special performance as Juliet. It also features an original score by Jonathan Steinmeier that the cast says is very powerful. It’s one of the first times in 80 years that an all-new ballet score has been created for a full-length performance of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Epsom said the music also helped her with the task of connecting emotionally to the ups and downs Juliet experiences during the play.
“I found myself connecting through the music and the movements … I think the score is so beautiful that it brings people to tears,” she said. “I think this show can really move the audience. I also think the score is going to appeal to people who wouldn’t really go to the ballet. It’s very cinematic.”
Both leads are tasked with playing teenagers in love — a challenge for Strong, who is 25 and said he has never been in love.
“I’ve been pulling from my personal relationships … I also have a brother in eighth grade, which helps with getting into the mindset of a 16-year-old,” he said.
Producing the well-known play was somewhat daunting for the cast and choreographer Amber Willett.
Aside from being studied in classrooms across the country, ballets throughout the world have performed the show using the classic choreography and score created decades ago by Kenneth MacMillan and Sergei Prokofiev. Epsom said that dancing the traditional choreography for Kirkland’s International Ballet Theatre company was probably the highlight of her career.
In 2008, the Pacific Northwest Ballet blended Prokofiev’s music with more contemporary movement. The well-received production remains in their repertoire.
“It’s a little bit intimidating. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a big thing to produce,” Willett said of her job.
Herself a fan of Shakespeare and married to an English literature professor, Willett wanted to revisit aspects of the text that have sometimes been lost in different productions, she said. Some versions have focused largely on the lovers and overlooked the families.
City Opera Ballet’s production includes parts of the story rarely staged: Juliet as a beloved only child, for instance, Tybalt as a dear friend to the nurse, and the intimate web of relations often missed, like the slain Mercutio, cousin to the Prince who ordered civil peace.
“The family is really important to me. So much of the plot comes from the families, their expectations and emotions,” Willett said. “The play even starts out, ‘Two households, both alike in dignity.’ In the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version, they die and it’s curtain down. In the text, the families reconcile at the end … At the end of the day, they both lost a child.”
Romeo and Juliet will be performed Oct. 8 and 9 at the theatre at Meydenbauer Center. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com.