Review: 'Romeo and Juliet' Brings the Best of Grand Rapids Ballet to the Stage

In the five years since James Sofranko became Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Ballet, the company has shown their extraordinary versatility both within and beyond the realm of classical ballet. They’ve explored exciting possibilities in modern and contemporary dance and also continued to make beloved storybook ballets and variations their own.

And with the world premiere of their Romeo and Juliet, Grand Rapids Ballet fully returns to their roots in the deep traditions of classical ballet.

It is Sofranko’s first run choreographing a full-length, three-act ballet, and performed at DeVos Hall with the Grand Rapids Symphony, it is a dazzling achievement.

The world’s most famous tragic love story makes for a magnificent ballet and the greatest companies the world over have offered variations set to Sergei Perkofiev’s terrifically cinematic score, some changing the ending, others emphasizing characterizations through movement. Instead of playing with form or bending the tale, Sofranko’s Romeo and Juliet is loyal to the original story and score and fully embodies the lexicon of classical ballet with nuance seemingly inspired by the particular strengths of the company to bring this tragedy to fruition.

Enormous crowd scenes are interrupted by playful and romantic pas de deux and athletic pas de trois as well as virtuoso solos to bring to life characters, relationships, action with a minimum of miming—and there’s a wonderful balance and movement from light and playful revelry to warring to romantic lyricism wherein there’s real character development.

From the moment the central men take the stage, the dancers’ musicality is palpable: there is an elegance to the way they seem to hang in the air, stretching out the orchestra’s notes. They are young, playful, arrogant; and these characters are particularly distinct in physicality, and yet they move as one with the same commitment as they perform marvelous solos.

Josué Justiz’s Romeo is strong yet soft—his dancing is what makes him a leader though he’s ultimately a pawn. Mercutio is the boldest of characters in the story, and Julian Gan plays him as a clownish scene stealer, milking the longest death scene in the history of the stage for more than it’s worth. Nathan Young offers an elegant Benvolio, and Branden Reiners brings marvelous stage presence and verisimilitude to the high drama of the exquisitely choreographed (by Joe Sofranko) and cleanly executed sword fights as Tybalt.

The fight scenes are exhilarating to watch and magnificently balanced by romantic playfulness that shifts and changes with emotional valence. The balcony pas de deux between Romeo and Juliet, the first piece of this ballet Sofranko choreographed, for the company’s 2020 “Eternal Desire” program, is stunning, and remains a marvelous highlight, the apex that concludes Act I.

Yuka Oba-Muschiana is a childlike Juliet who primarily captures her sweetness and innocence; however, in the balcony scene, she matures before our eyes, dancing for Romeo, her love and physicality blossoming from infatuation to something eternal, growing in complexity and intensity with each step and note. Every bend of the knee, every sweep of the foot that was light and lovely in their first dance together quietly explodes with expressivity. Little flairs and flicks of legs in the air with lifts in arabesque land with her body balancing on his, back-to-back, showing their union, their passion solidified. There is no question of what is to come after this.

Beyond the expressivity of the movement, this Romeo and Juliet is visually sumptuous with grand sets and costumes designed by Alain Vaës, courtesy of Ballet Arizona, and lighting design by Matthew Taylor that invites intimacy with appropriate spotlights as well as highlights the heat and intensity of street war, helping visually communicate the different high-valence moments.

There is nothing simple about creating a three-act ballet, but Grand Rapids Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet offers a simply exquisite production of a timeless story brought to its full potential. It’s a fantastic collaboration that shows what’s possible when exceptional artists bring the best of their talents to classic works.

Romeo and Juliet
Grand Rapids Ballet
Feb. 17-19