I stab myself and collapse over Romeo's dead body. Darkness surrounds us like a cloak of privacy, making these final moments seem intimate despite the thousands of eyes watching from the audience and the wings. Breathless, I listen as the curtain begins its slow descent and muffles the fading sounds of the orchestra. Zak lies still beneath me, yet I can hear his heart beating strong through his thick, velvet jacket.
The curtain falls with a gentle thud, and we are safe to move. We gather ourselves up from the tomb and walk, silent and exhausted, towards center stage to prepare for our curtain call. Suddenly, a dancer runs toward us from the wings and hands something to Zak, a strange thing to happen at the end of a ballet. I ask what it was about and get a mumbled response, but I don't think twice. Even out of character, I feel like nothing can come between us. The curtain lifts, and we walk forward together: a couple in theater and in real life.
And then it happens. Zak turns to face me and speaks in a voice just loud enough to hear over the applause. He drops to one knee and, with the boyish enthusiasm of his Shakespearian counterpart, presents me with a gorgeous diamond ring. I barely let him finish his proposal when I throw myself at him, wrapping my legs around his torso and forgetting that we are still onstage. I have been swept off my feet! My Romeo, not typically one for public displays of affection, has just made the most romantic gesture of all time.
That was in the spring of 2005, the last time Pennsylvania Ballet presented John Cranko's Romeo & Juliet. More than 2,500 people, including my parents and friends, watched from the audience that June afternoon and witnessed one of the most personal and ecstatic moments of my life. There are no photographs to document the occasion; there was no video made. Zak took special precautions to ensure that the proposal would be a complete surprise. But the details are forever imprinted in my mind: the way I felt, the way he looked, the way it seemed like, at that moment, no one else existed...until Zak reminded me that we were still onstage. I remember holding up my left hand and pointing to my ring finger for all to see. The theater erupted with cheers louder than those at a sold-out Phillies game.
Diamonds aside, I consider it a gift to dance with the love of my life. Our partnership is the fulfillment of both my personal and artistic passions. The rehearsal process, however, can be challenging due to the lack of boundaries and formalities between us. Every subtle grunt and frustrated expression seems to be magnified. Criticism is taken more personally than it would be coming from other colleagues. We sometimes have less patience and greater expectations. Yet we are also in tune with each other's nagging injuries and fluctuating energy levels. I know when he has not slept well; he knows when I am in desperate need of a snack. But we rarely bring our work home. While we might discuss things in the car, conversation about ballet usually transitions into other topics and fades with the Philadelphia skyline as we drive further from the studios or the theater. Onstage with Zak, I have no fear. I know he will always be there for me, ready to save anything that might go wrong or adapt to any impulse I might indulge. I have no inhibitions with him: there is no need to imagine love or to feign familiarity. He knows what I look like first thing in the morning.
Zak also knows that Romeo & Juliet has always been close to my heart. My affinity for Juliet's character in particular began early, when I first read the play in high school English class. I too was named Julie, was 14 years of age, Italian, and from the city of Verona (albeit Verona, New Jersey). How could I not feel connected to this tragic heroine? Her strength and vulnerability appealed to me, as did the beauty of Shakespeare's poetic language. Around the same time, my mother took me to see American Ballet Theatre's Romeo & Juliet with Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca in the title roles. Watching Ferri's sublime portrayal and hearing the live orchestration of Prokofiev's score must have stirred something within my soul, because I left the Metropolitan Opera House that night with an overwhelming desire to dance the ballet. Reading the play was one thing: now I wanted to feel it.
And what a powerful sensation it is! It is easy to lose myself and forget the practical aspects of dancing a full-length production. There are sets to navigate, props to handle, and quick changes to remember. Nothing distracts my focus (or the audience's attention) more than tripping over a piece of scenery or running onstage with a costume half fastened. But having such awareness is difficult when Juliet demands just about everything of a dancer: artistry, technique, dramatic sensibility, and the ability to connect with a partner, to be believable and human. There is no bravura or tremendous feat to accomplish like the 32 fouett_ turns at the end of Swan Lake or Don Quixote. Instead, its technical elements must melt effortlessly into the narrative. An arabesque is not just an arabesque: each step and gesture helps to further the story or enhance character development. Cranko's version, fortunately, embraces this approach to storytelling. He avoids extraneous pantomime and lets the movement speak for itself. But I find that, as a dancer, it is easy to get complacent and rely on the choreography to dictate a feeling, mood, or look. I like to go back to the text and reread the play every time I dance Juliet. This exercise affects my choices and interpretation, especially as I return to the ballet at different stages throughout my career.
My life has changed a bit since my Romeo proposed to me five years ago. Zak and I are now married and the parents of a beautiful, spirited two-year-old girl. My hair is uncharacteristically short, and I have real extensions for this production. (Who wants to worry about a loose, flopping hair piece in the middle of Romeo and Juliet's intimate bedroom pas de deux?) Some things haven't changed, like the excitement and anticipation I feel upon hearing the first few notes of Prokofiev's score. And I still, of course, simply love to dance with Zak. The rehearsal process continues to both challenge and strengthen our partnership. I only wish I could express to him, in this same public venue, an equally powerful declaration of love. But because I cannot find the words, I will let Shakespeare's Juliet speak for me, both onstage and here:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have. For both are infinite.
(Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2)
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Julie Diana is a Principal Dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, holds a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, and has written for various dance publications.