Artists have engaged cupid as their muse for centuries, and nowhere do his arrows pierce more powerfully than in Romeo and Juliet and Giselle - two of ballet's most romantic tales.
Lovers arrange secret marriages, disregard families' wishes and banish those who get in their way in these stories of passion, intrigue and broken loyalties. Dancing speaks more poignantly than words in them because as choreographer Martha Graham once said, "Movement never lies."
Ben Stevenson's rendering of William Shakespeare's heart-wrenching tale requires dancers to convey deep emotions in the story of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, who meet at a masked ball in Italy, fall in love during an encounter on Juliet's balcony, and slip away to be wed. The passion in the ballet's earlier scenes foreshadows the heartbreak by which each lover falls to his or her death, requiring more character development in a short span than almost any other ballet in the repertoire, says Stevenson, who created this version for Houston Ballet in 1987. Houston Ballet will perform Stevenson's Romeo and Juliet in March.
Juliet's role challenges even the most seasoned ballerinas because "she never really has a chance to mature or grow up," Stevenson explains. "But during that short lifetime you see her going from being childish to being in love to deceiving people. She has to change but the change has to be so subtle."
The entire cast must bring the love story to life, with Juliet's nurse as invested in the romance as the main characters, and Romeo's friend Mercutio willing to die for his friend's honor. Believability reverberates through Juliet's head-to-toe excitement whenever she sees Romeo, and distress washes over Romeo upon discovering his beloved lying lifeless in a crypt. To evoke the dancers' acting skills, Stevenson coached them using his background in English theater and pantomime.
Aside from the ballet's anguishing final scenes, the sword fights were the most difficult to choreograph, according to Stevenson. He hired a professional fencing coach to guide Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt in swinging at each other without slicing each other's throats. Each fight scene was unpredictable, as was exactly what would happen between the two main characters once they got onstage. Some midnight encounters were more passionate than others, and some deaths more dramatic than the nights before, Stevenson says. Like dispensing romantic advice, he coached the various casts on their roles, then trusted them to make their own decisions with the parts.
Giselle carries audiences to the mystical spirit world where Romeo and Juliet might have gone once the curtain closed on their tragic love story.
Set in 19th century Germany, Giselle recounts a peasant maiden's love for a prince, who disguises himself as a meandering villager. Prince Albrecht wins Giselle's heart and breaks it when she finds out he is really betrothed to another woman. Delicate and sensitive, Giselle breaks down completely (the famous "mad scene"), and dies. She then joins the ranks of the Wilis, the otherworldly spirits seeking revenge on the men they once loved. Giselle is forced by Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, to lure Albrecht into his own death dance with the help of the vengeful Wilis, but saves him in an ultimate expression of true love.
Houston Ballet Artistic Associate Maina Gielgud believes Giselle still touches a chord with the many romantics amongst us (admitted or not). Houston Ballet presents her production of Giselle in June.
"Who amongst us has not felt they have loved and been betrayed in some way, or been reckless and then realized and regretted it when it was too late," Gielgud. "And as for the otherworldly, the spiritual will always be with us. I believe that the most materialistic of us still would wish to believe in the power of love, and have something of the idealist in them."
The ballet's themes involve maternal protection, hopeless romanticism and betrayal. Dancers must rely on their acting skills to portray such complex emotions, with Albrecht facing a particularly difficult task.
"For Albrecht, the great challenge is dancing in the second act while showing that he is getting more and more tired and close to dying of exhaustion," Gielgud explains. "[This is] most unusual in ballet, where generally speaking one is trying to make the audience believe that no effort is involved."
The ballerina dancing Giselle must also reveal love's power by dancing to death over her heartbreak, and then finding her love so great that she can forgive and save Albrecht before leaving behind the world she knows forever. For ballerinas, Giselle is a dream role, which calls for tremendous preparation, after which they often feel completely exhausted - as if they had barely escaped the land of the Wilis.
Story ballets can be tender and lighthearted, but they also may reveal deeper truths, especially when coached by artists such as Stevenson and Gielgud. Although no dialogue is used in these dramas, their pirouettes tell a thousand words.
Based in Houston, Christie Taylor is a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts/New York Times arts journalism fellow.