Young Love, On Pointe

Dayton Ballet embraces Shakespeare’s classic love tragedy

By Arnecia patterson

The end of a season for a dance company is akin to the “sweet sorrow” spoken to Romeo by Juliet in William Shakespeare’s 16th century play, “Romeo and Juliet.” It takes countless hours of classes, study, rehearsals, fittings and physical endurance for the Dayton Ballet’s 18 dancers to perform a season that includes three full-length ballets plus a repertory program. By the end of the dance year, the finality is as palpable as the build up to Romeo and Juliet’s demise. Soon, dancers and supporting artists will have a chance to relax and look forward to the off-season before returning to another strenuous season only a few months later. Before that happens, though, the Dayton Ballet will take the stage in Romeo and Juliet to close its 78th season. On April 1-3 in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center, the company will perform choreographer Septime Webre’s version to the famous score by Sergei Prokofiev played live by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Neal Gittleman.

Initially, Prokofiev’s score was not nearly as final as the characters’ endings in the ballet. From the time that he was first approached about the ballet by Sergei Radlov (1892-1958) in 1934, Prokofiev changed the music dramatically between its recital in 1936 and premier with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky (1905-67). He revised the ending, Lavrovsky revised Prokofiev’s revisions, and Prokofiev made more changes. After four years of changes, the ballet made a successful debut in Leningrad in January 1940.

Despite the back and forth with the music and the resulting acclaimed score, young love is a universal description of Romeo and Juliet—even when referencing the ballet. The theme that focuses on its young lovers is so well-known that Dayton Ballet dancers, Evan Pitts and Jocelyn Green, who are cast as Romeo and Juliet, must transcend the superficial details of the story to illuminate its overarching theme. The Dayton Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet takes a meta view that places its often cited facts: teenage love and feudal traditions of the 16th century, in a love-hate binary. From this standpoint the story maintains relevance that will challenge the audience to consider the realism surrounding the dance’s most ethereal moments.

Tell the Story

When the Dayton Ballet performed Septime Webre’s Romeo and Juliet in 2005, Rich Grund danced the role of Romeo to his wife Jennifer Grund’s Juliet. Now, Grund is a professor of dance at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, but he returned to Dayton in order to set the ballet with former dancer and rehearsal assistant, Sharon Neumeister. Grund sees dance as more than an opportunity to entertain; he is taken with its storytelling aspect—especially in Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet is a ballet about factions of people who hate each other. Can love exist in this environment?” asks Grund.

His viewpoint carries impact. As he speaks, it is not a stretch to use his question as a frame for 21st century concerns regarding politics, race, gender and a list of subjects at the center of which difference is debated. Nor is it a stretch for him to coach dancers into doing more than dancing the steps assigned their roles.

“Good dancer-storytellers are able to spend a lot of time focusing on characters,” Grund says. “They appreciate communicating with the other dancers on stage. If we are not communicating thoughts and ideas to the audience, then we’re just pretty.”

Pretty is important since beauty is one of ballet’s most potent drawing cards. Romeo and Juliet draws well from the balcony, ballroom and duel scenes to highlight the beauty of the dance. These details are captivating, yet, according to Grund, a larger picture is in play, both then and now.

“As artists, we can challenge people to reflect on the realities around them. The communication across the table is the reason I wanted to be an artist,” Grund says.

His perspective encourages the viewer to pair the beauty of the dance—its movements highlighted by theatrical stage design—with introspection prompted by the storytelling prowess of the dancers. It is a suggestion that balances artistry and realism.

“It’s important to understand the visceral part of love as a reminder of how important it is for love to sustain us,” he reflects. “What’s going to bring us together? What is going to win at the end of the day? That’s the question.”

Such a balanced context taps into the world in which Romeo and Juliet made its premier. Dram-balet began as the socialist realism antithesis of dances that privileged allegory and symbolism. Romeo and Juliet was created during that period shortly after Joseph V. Stalin expressed displeasure at a seemingly frivolous, abstract ballet, The Bright Stream (ca. 1936) by composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) and choreographer, Fyodor Lopukhov (1886-1973). Romeo and Juliet’s strong characters made it particularly attractive; however, the manner in which Lavrovsky melded ballet vocabulary into storyline captured audiences. At its first viewings as the ballet we now know, Romeo and Juliet became popular for how the choreography embraced the story, and it emerged as one of dance’s lasting examples of dram-balet.

Embrace the Story

Evan Pitts and Jocelyn Green have different personal experiences with Romeo and Juliet that have evolved from the time they first learned the story until today as they prepare to dance the roles. Green recalls it as assigned reading when she was a teenager. Like many teenagers, she was taken aback by the extreme lengths the couple went to in the name of love. Her initial impressions have been tempered by the experiences of a young adult—experiences that prepare her to embrace Juliet’s complexity.

“I feel a lot more empathy for Juliet and what she’s going through,” Green says. “You see so much in the world. It’s not really about these two people. It’s about society and what hate can do.”

Pitts considers Romeo and Juliet an exaggeration of what the average teenage couple will go through to be together, but recalls his own decision to leave his home in Jacksonville, FL to pursue his profession. He left Jacksonville to move to St. Louis at age 17, because he and his girlfriend (Dayton Ballet dancer Brittany Butler) found dance jobs. He remembers the support of his family and how others questioned his decision to forego the pomp and circumstance of graduation and college afterward. His personal experience affirms a realist’s perspective.

“Love and hate are bigger than the story itself. It is more about our need to choose love over hate or we’re going to always be opposites,” Pitts says.

Both Pitts and Green had their first encounters with the ballet years ago by watching YouTube clips of different versions, but they have refrained from the practice since being cast. As professionals, they know that the next dance version of Romeo and Juliet they need to capture has to be the one that audiences will see on the Schuster Center stage in April. The movement is new and challenging. The most memorable parts—like the balcony pas de deux—can be daunting at the onset, but professional dancers get used to applying vocabulary to new ways of moving. The fact remains that the lifts are plentiful and Romeo, in particular, is onstage for a large portion of the ballet.

With all of the physical challenges, and everyone’s attention on the balcony pas de deux, Pitts sees it as a relationship between two people.

“It’s long. It’s hard. It’s romantic,” he says. “It develops a relationship between two people. I think that’s what sparks everyone’s interest.”

Green agrees that in addition to the physical fulfillment that comes from finally addressing the movement the way the dance requires, it is important to connect it to the narrative because that is what storytelling requires.

“I think what’s hard about this ballet is that you can’t just do the steps,” Green says. “You have to constantly be in character. You can’t just reach your hand out. You have to think about what you’re saying. There’s always a sentence to every movement. We have to have that dialogue with ourselves and between the two of us.”

She plans to revisit the literature and use the words to evoke emotional paint to color her dancing. Pitts is looking at film versions for an actor’s point of view. Both are avoiding YouTube for the time being.

“I don’t want to watch any other versions of the ballet,” Green says. “I want to read it, because I think the words will help. I see moments in the choreography that I know are specific to the language in Shakespeare.”

Those outside influences provide shape to their performance. It is a months-long, multi-layered endeavor that requires acting and dancing.

“Every day we run something, and I think ‘When I do that I’m saying this. Next time, I’m going to try that.’ And you just keep adding every day. You have to dance the story,” Pitts says.

The Stage is Set

Ray Zupp, known to Dayton Ballet audiences for his set design on The Nutcracker and work on Cinderella, is creating the set for Romeo and Juliet. His sets have often given a nod to the dark fantasy elements of a Tim Burton aesthetic, but he has stepped back from the reference to design the Romeo and Juliet set and showcase the tragic romance. In an email, Zupp writes, “I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare’s plays and of this piece. My design is similar in footprint to the previous production due to specific choreography, but I’m attempting a more historical and romantic look.”

Zupp uses the former set as a reference but is working to “fill in the lines with colors all my own.” He was recently in Verona, Italy, where the ballet is set, and has implied a seamless and unobtrusive architecture of the story. “We see the streets of Verona, the candlelit ballroom of the party … the moonlit bedroom of Juliet’s, the iconic balcony scene, the church where they marry in secret, and the catacombs where the star-crossed lovers meet their end,” he writes.

According to the Dayton Ballet, Romeo and Juliet is not an old story; it is an ongoing conversation in which real choices have to be made amidst the beauty of possibilities. We are still left to question who or what really dies in the end.

The Dayton Ballet presents Romeo and Juliet on Friday-Saturday, April 1-2 at 8 p.m and Sunday, April 3 at 3 p.m. at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in Dayton.  Tickets are $11-$61 with senior, teacher and student discounts available. For tickets or more information, please call 937.228.3630 or

Before each performance, artistic director, Karen Russo Burke will hold a pre-performance talk called “The First Step,” giving audience members a more in-depth look at the upcoming performance and a behind-the-scenes peek at Dayton Ballet. “The First Step” will be held one hour prior to curtain time for each performance in the lobby of the Upper Balcony of the Schuster Center. “Behind the Ballet,” a Q&A with dancers that gives audiences the opportunity to learn more about the life of a dancer with Dayton Ballet will follow each performance in the theatre. “The First Step” and “Behind the Ballet” sessions are free of charge for all ticketholders.

Reach DCP freelance writer Arnecia Patterson at

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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at

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