Richmond Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, 400 Years of Art Imitating Life

Sabrina Holland and Khaiyom Khojaev as Romeo and Juliet with Richmond Ballet, 2022. Photo credit, Dave Pearson

Richmond, VA – It is a story with a cast of characters that includes a youthful rock and roller, with guitar (lute) in hand, on a mission to serenade a love of his life that ultimately falls in love with the only woman in Verona he cannot have. What if his true love is a naïve young woman, with parents that control her very being, even making decisions as to whom she will wed? Instead of her parentally-chosen destiny, she falls in love with the bad boy rocker. The lover’s obstacles to happiness are their feuding in-laws with a hate that runs so deep it blinds them to the damage it causes to those around them, even if it drives their own children to their untimely demise.  

A plot like this could end up being a blockbuster movie with Millie Bobby Brown and Louis Partridge as the young lovers… or it could even be a real life story about two families living on opposite sides of the street on your block. Funny how life imitates art (or art imitates life). It is fascinating that this 400+ year old story, written by William Shakespeare in the late 16th century, is just as relevant today (maybe more). The play was performed for the masses for centuries, virtually unchanged, as it hit home for so many in a tragic sort of way.

But art must evolve, taking that which is solid from the past and presenting it in new ways. In the 1930s, composer Sergei Prokofiev put this story to music and dance… telling the sad tale only through body language, without the utterance of a single word (and no CGI). Art imitates life and no matter how delivered, the human state reflected in Romeo and Juliet is just as relevant and impactful as it was 400 years ago. This was most evident as I took in Richmond Ballet‘s performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Dominion Energy Center on February 19, 2022. 

Everyone loves a guy with a ‘guitar’ (Lute). Romeo and Juliet by Richmond Ballet. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

This production was choreographed by Malcolm Burn in the 1970s. It was first performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1977. After coming to Richmond Ballet in 1987, Burn introduced his production to Richmond in 1995. 

To get the full feel of what it takes to put on such a production, Richmond Ballet invited me to sit in a rehearsal of the balcony scene. It was obvious from the start the evolution of the production was more about the story than the dance. The family nature of Richmond Ballet also caught my eye as the learning between principles and understudies was amazing to witness (and it went both ways, each learned from each other). There was a huge focus on the technical dance, but it was apparent that the story took precedence. On several occasions Burn worked with the dancers, not so much on the technical dance aspects, but on the dramatic aspects, focusing on things such as hand motion and position from a lover’s perspective, facial expressions, and even how to run (while dancing but not making it look like dancing… Burn joked with the Romeos by pointing out that surely they could run faster than the Juliets as they were not wearing point shoes!). Burn summed up his production best when he told me this is more than a dance or ballet, “it is a dance drama”.

In the first act, we are introduced to the families and get an understanding of the family dynamics. Opening with our young rocker, Romeo (Khaiyom Khojaev), a Montague, who is looking to serenade a love of his life with the axe of the past, a lute. His romantic quest is interrupted as friends Benvolio (Colin Jacob) and Mercutio (Enrico Hipolito) appear, pranking Romeo and each other… basically being boys. The chemistry between the three was so much fun. Khojaev’s impish demeanor (his passion for the role was obvious) set the tone for romance, Hipolito’s take on Mercutio was awesome as you could see his frivolity with a sense of risky adventure (he liked to antagonize the Capulets, namely Tybalt). Jacob was the perfect Benvolio as his stage presence made for the friend who loved to have fun while knowing the limits and trying to get his friends to remain between the lines. 

Romeo and Juliet performed by Richmond Ballet. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

On the Capulet side of the aisle, we meet Tybalt (Ira White). Tybalt was the protector of the Capulet honor and White’s stature and grace conveyed the role quite convincingly. Lady Capulet (Lauren Fagone), in my opinion, was the backbone of the Capulet line. It felt as though Lord Capulet (Ma Cong), while the Capulet authority figure, relied on the will of Ms. Capulet for his strength and direction. Juliet (Sabrina Holland) was the naïve, obedient daughter, who felt obligated to give in to the will of mother but had a free spirit and looked to father for a sympathetic ear (can anyone relate?). Paris (Joe Seaton), the mate chosen for young Juliet is in a hard spot, as he too is looking for love, but does not seem to know how to handle a free thinking woman. Finally, there is the family nurse (Susan Israel Massey), obedient to the family but also a friend that tries to understand Juliet’s needs.

The choreography and interactions when the Capulets and Montagues collide was a joy to watch. While I cannot say the swords used in the fight scene were sharp, I can say they would definitely put one’s eye out. Tybalt successfully fended off Romeo and his friends, with Mercutio being the biggest aggressor (and an all around irritant to Tybalt). Thankfully Romeo and Benvolio ensured Mercutio did not get in over his head. Escalus (Jack Miller), Prince of Verona puts a stop to the battle and tells the family to behave (grow up). The choreography and the execution of the sword scene was flawless!

Act 1 Photo Gallery

In Juliet’s bedroom she is presented with her husband to be… so mom thinks. Holland’s portrayal of the shy girl, trying to get to know the person she is to wed is very convincing. Seaton is the nobleman indeed, as he has a strong stature. There was an awkward air to Paris, as he appeared to be somewhat uncertain about the unknown. This is where we start to see the relationship between the somewhat submissive Lord Capulet and the dominant Lady Capulet. 

When the lads, donning masks, crash the Capulet party (as only three wild and crazy guys can do), Romeo is struck by love at first sight. Khojaev danced the role of a shy, yet determined, courter to a tee, with his friends helping him as friends do. This scene really hit home, as Romeo even set out to woo the mom into liking him (before she knew who he was). Yes, art reflects life indeed! Not to be outdone on the acting side, Holland payed the Juliette naiveté perfectly, shy, yet intrigued… breathtaking. On the outside looking in was Paris. Seaton did a glorious job of looking on, appearing somewhat confused, as the chosen love of his life was being drawn away. 

There are two Pas de Deux performances in Act 1, the first being at the Capulet party, the second being the famed balcony scene. The Burn’s choreography and his vision of a dance drama vs. ballet were apparent in both the dance itself and in the perceived evolution of the relationship between Romeo and Juliet as performed by Khojaev and Holland. The chemistry here and throughout rocked!

Sabrina Holland and Khaiyom Khojaev in Romeo and Juliet by Richmond Ballet. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

The second act was a powerful reminder of what happens when parents are overbearing. Juliet’s loving nurse delivers a secret note to Romeo who then elopes with Juliet to marry in the chapel. Friar Lawrence (Roland Jones) performs the ceremony, hoping that the union of the children will bring the two families together. 

Elopement and a prayer, Romeo and Juliet by Richmond Symphony. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

For those who love the battle of the sword, once again, the choreography for the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt at the market is phenomenal. Mercutio’s incessant desire to antagonize is fun and dark at the same time. Hipolito plays the role flawlessly. On the opposite side, Tybalt seems to be of the mindset that the fight is irritating. White does a great job of conveying the emotion and yet (maybe I misread it) nearly feeling regret at killing Mercutio’s. Tybalt takes his final breath as Romeo challenges him and emerges victorious. Art imitates life, the action and reaction are strong in this scene. 

The bedroom scene once again shows a confused Paris as he cannot comprehend Juliet’s emotions and apparent rejection. It is in this scene where the dominant role of Lady Capulet is strong. Juliet pleads with mother, but goes to father for sympathy and understanding. It appears that the rift is between mother and daughter, and on several occasions, intentionally or not, on stage Paris and Lord Capulet are shown to be, physically, what has come between mother and daughter. 

Act 2 Gallery

Act 3 begins with Romeo saying goodbye to his dear Juliet. Another emotional Pas de Deux was performed by Holland and Khojaev, and then Juliet was alone. 

Juliet decides extreme measures are required and Friar Lawrence gives her a sleeping potion to make her appear dead. Holland’s solo dance, the poison scene, is very powerful. Facial expressions and body language make for a gut wrenching performance. She is discovered on her bed by her good friends, (Eri Nishihara, Naomi Wilson, Kaeley Andrews, Courtney Collier, Naomi Robinson, and Marjorie Sherman) as they do a dance to celebrate her wedding, which quickly turns into tragedy. 

After hearing of Juliet’s death, Romeo runs to say his final goodbyes in the Capulet tomb. Unknown to him, she is not dead, only sleeping. Sadly he departs just prior to Friar John (Paul Piner) appearing with the note. Upon entering the tomb, Romeo is stricken with grief. The final Pas de Deux, with a superbly lifeless Juliet was so powerful. 

The mourning Pas de Deux in Romeo and Juliet by Richmond Ballet. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

Until death do they part… the final tragedy is when Romeo, unable to live without Juliet, takes his own life with the Shakespeare implement of choice, poison. Upon her awakening, Juliet breaks down, eventually taking her own life… for the second time, with a dagger. The scenery, lighting, and acting and the final scene, with the mourning families together in the tomb, calling for a truce, was the ultimate end to a phenomenal production. 

Act 3 Gallery

There is no way to have covered all the ways the ways this 400+ year old drama is just as relevant today as it was in the times of Shakespeare. Richmond Ballet’s production left me at a loss for words but with a whole new view. This production rocked and is a must see!!

Other roles not mentioned

Lord Montague – Cade Bolz
Lady Montague – Sarah Shaw
Balthasar – Zacchaeus Page
Fate – Gabrielle Goodson
Harlots – Celeste Gaiera, Sarah Joan Smith, Izabella Tokev
Troubadours – Kaeley Andrews, Courtney Collier, Patrick Lennon, Garrett McNally,
Naomi Robinson, Marjorie Sherman