The Bolshoi Ballet's "Romeo and Juliet" at The Orange County Performing Arts Center is a spectacular production with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky and gorgeous sets and costumes by Petr Williams. A good part of the action takes place in front of the curtain while massive set changes occur behind. The opening establishes this when the ornate red and gold curtain rises, we see three figures on pedestals, like statues. The curtain comes right back down again and rises on a courtyard in old Verona. There's a staircase at the right, and a backdrop of the city with medieval towers, a bridge, and Romeo leaning against a statue.

The Montague and Capulet servants congregate in an ensemble of thirteen or so dancers, layered in various positions from front to back. The exquisite precision sets the stage for the evening and there's dazzling swordplay between the rival families. Juliet flies around her elegant chamber. Nina Ananiashvili is the capricious, flighty fourteen year old who playfully runs away from her nurse, and is finally cornered by her mother to dress for the ball.

The city is shrouded in fog for the backdrop to the ballroom, which has columns and archways four deep and four across.. Paris presents Juliet with flowers and they do a lively pas de deux. A large ensemble of twelve couples creates a festive atmosphere. Romeo is struck dumb at the sight of Juliet and they meet at the front of the stage as the lights dim. Their pas de deux is the epitome of tender young love. she melts into him and he lifts her and carries her around the stage. He holds her, arms fully extended high above his head with his back to the audience, while she faces us in triumph.

Act 2 opens with a lively ensemble in the square that moves with clockwork precision. The entertainment has more than a sprinkling of folk dance, led by Ilya Ryzhakov's dazzling troubadour. He spins, twirls, and jumps high, kicks his legs straight out and back at the knees, in an amazing display. Romeo and the Nurse meet in front of the curtain as she presents Juliet's note. It opens to Friar Lawrence in his cell. He picks up a flower in one hand and a skull in the other that seems to symbolize love and fate. Romeo picks up both, and when Juliet enters he puts down the skull and spreads flowers at her feet. They walk in step as one and reach out together in a warmly elegant gesture as the Friar marries them.

It's back to the courtyard revelry and Tybalt challenges Mercutio. Vladimir Moiseev's Tybalt is rock solid and perpetually angry and agressive, while Yan Godovsky's Mercutio is thin as a rail, lively, and elegant. Romeo tries to make peace between them but is pushed away and mocked by Tybalt and his friends. When Tybalt delivers the fatal blow, Mercutio does a passionately extended dance of death of operatic proportions while Tybalt watches from the balcony. Romeo avenges his friend and Capulet comes center stage in a tragically defiant gesture while his wife grieves. It rises to a chilling climax as Lady Capulet is carried off with Tybalt and rises up with a blood curdling fury as the curtain falls.

Act 3 opens in Juliet's chamber. She and Romeo awaken in each other's arms. Their pas de deux now is a glow as they fall into each other. She's light as air as he lifts her fully over his head. Her emotions burn and she cries as he carries her on his shoulder. Romeo leaves through the window and the nurse tries to compose her. Juliet's shattered and can't pull it together when Paris is presented. Her father literally pulls her away from the window that Romeo has left from.

The pantomime is extraordinary in this production, more so than usual. In one of the more expressive gestures, Friar Lawrence passes his hand in front of his face when he gives the potion to Juliet. It's solemn, and there's no mistaking that this drink will be like death. There's no joy, only resignation and sorrow in her final dance with Paris, and she pushes him away when he tries to kiss her.

The tomb scene is a procession of death like you would see in an Ingmar Bergman film. Total gloom and desolation, like the Plague. Romeo is all in black. He jumps, leaps, and spins, but there's no joy, only apprehension and dread. There's no fight with Paris here, only the lovers, as he lifts her lifeless body, lays her back behind him, puts her down and kills himself. The two fathers embrace at the end over the two bodies in this riveting climax.

Nina Ananiashvili is a Juliet like I've never seen in the ballet, and rarely in the theater. She takes the art of dancing actress to new heights of expression. Her emotions are as powerful as her flawless technique. She's the capricious fourteen year old, and blindly in love. She seems lighter than air as she soars in joy, while we are transfixed by the desperation she feels at abandoning her family for Romeo. There's no doubt about her decision, though, however painful it will be. At the end, she's crushed with her final act of desperation.

Andrei Uvarov's Romeo does things I've never seen a danseur do. He jumps high and leaps like the girls, except higher and with much more power. He's smooth as silk and the two together are like one.

The pantomime was some of the best I've ever seen in dance. These are actors as much as they are dancers. The combination turns it into a simply luscious spectacle. Andrey Sitnikov's Capulet stands out here. Maria Volodina's Lady Capulet is elegant and refined, but passionate and hard as her tragedies increase. Evgenia Volochkova is a lively nurse who's ready to do anything for Juliet. The Friar Laurence of Alexi Loparevich is absolutely sublime. He's always calm and thoughtful, even if his plan to unite the lovers ultimately fails.

Alexander Sotnikov lead the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev's score. In this stupendous production of Lavrovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" the Bolshoi Ballet left a clear stamp of greatness and showed they are second to none.

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