|The Kansas City Ballet presents Romeo and Juliet.|
Photo by Steve Wilson.
I have only one memory of seeing this ballet before last night; on TV when I was growing up. My most vivid image from that performance is Juliet begging her father not to marry her off to Paris.
Funny how that was the one thing that stuck, when the ballet as a whole is so richly woven in all its scenes. Last night we were treated to brilliantly choreographed sword fights, passionate love scenes, grand masquerades, and a host of characters whose personalities were extraordinarily vivid, an especially admirable achievement when one considers ballet dancers are never allowed to speak their character's thoughts. Everything must be commmunicated by bodily action and facial expression.
Here's some fun trivia about the history of the ballet. Back when composer Sergei Prokofiev was trying to sell his idea, first to the Kirov Ballet, then to the Bolshoi, no one wanted it. Why? Because dead people don't dance. Without the two principle characters alive at the end, there could be no grand finale.
Prokofiev refused to lose faith in his project, however. He continued to perfect the score, and finally managed to convince the ballet company in Brno, Czechoslovakia, to take it on. Romeo and Juliet premiered in 1938 with great success, and soon after ballet companies around the world -- including the Kirov and the Bolshoi -- were lining up for their chance to perform it.
After all the different interpretations I've seen of this tale of doomed love, one would think I'd be 'over it' by now, that the ending would cease to invoke an emotional response. Yet last night when the curtain went down on the third act, I had tears in my eyes again.
To be fair, it wasn't just the story that got to me. I was moved by the exquisite work of those wonderful dancers, by the grandeur of the production and the beauty of the new Kauffman Center for Performing Arts, and by pride in my home town of Kansas City, which now boasts a world-class ballet that is loved and supported by its citizens.
I was thinking during the third act, as I watched Angelina Sansone's wonderful interpretation of the character of Juliet, about the immortality that we give to certain characters whose stories for whatever reason never fail to inspire us, generation after generation. Juliet is one of these characters. How many times each year is her presence invoked across the globe? In Prokovief's beloved ballet, in high school and professional productions of Shakespeare's classic play, in replays of old and not-so-old movies, in modern derivations of the original tale, such as Bernstein's and Sondheim's West Side Story, which itself has been subject to countless interpretetations and re-interpretations.
What would Juliet say, if she could speak to us about this propensity to bring her back to life so many times, and in so many ways?
Would she thank us for this immortality, for having allowed her story to transcend death itself?
Or would she say, "Enough. I have lived this joy and this pain too many times. Let me rest. Let me be at peace."
This is one of the great paradoxes of story telling: Characters are imagined, and yet they have a life of their own. Every author has felt it; the tension between the power of one's own imagination and those frequent moments when one looks at what was just written and asks, "Now wait a minute. Who's telling this story?"
There is a great novel that captures this dynamic, Halide's Gift by Frances Kazan, a work of historical fiction about the life of Turkish author Halide Edibe. In Kazan's telling of the story, Halide is heiress to a long line of women who have had the gift of hearing the dead. But Halide hears no one, and spends much of her life believing she did not inherit the gift, until she starts writing and realizes the stories of her characters are made possible by the voices of the dead.
If Halide Edibe had been present when the Moscow theater manager rejected Prokofiev's ballet on the conviction that "Dead people don't dance," she might have argued otherwise.
I cannot say from a literal perspective whether she would have been right.
But figuratively speaking, the dead do indeed dance.
They danced for us last night; and I am deeply grateful for the stories they told.