of “Then I defy you stars!” (V.i.24)

Say what you like about the Italian teenager, but let’s all agree that Romeo really knocked it out of the park with his grand gesture. You see grand gestures on screen all the time: Ryan Gosling builds the dream home in The Notebook, Liv Tyler chooses mortality in The Return of the King, Kirsten Dunst designs that roadtrip in Elizabethtown, Humphrey Bogart says, “We’ll always have Paris,” in Casablanca, and the Beast gives Belle that magnificent library I still daydream about. A grand gesture is an uncharacteristically spectacular act of love. So, while woefully unnecessary, Romeo’s suicide definitely qualifies as a grand gesture.

San Diego Ballet’s Romeu et Juliet Photo by Shawna Sarnowski

I want to talk about little gestures.

It is attention to detail that sets apart San Diego Ballet’s Romeo et Juliet. It’s in Stephanie Maiorano’s truly, refreshingly playful portrayal of Juliet, the picture of innocence so pleasantly out of place in her weighty, warring world. It’s in her handling a length of tulle that looks like a wedding veil, batting it away like a cobweb as if to say, “ew, cooties,” or according to the original script, “it is an honor that I do not dream of.” It’s in her lively and lighthearted attendants (Noriko Zaragoza, Tessa Peterson Barbour) who seemed to fly and flirt while handling Prokofiev’s clever score. It’s in the fast footwork that seems to pull dancers in two different directions, a subtle illustration of that forever feud between Capulets and Montagues.  It’s in the nurse (Leah Gardner) frantically barreling about as a frequent and funny reminder of how young Juliet must be, naiive enough to still worry adults and warrant supervision. It’s in the severity of the red light bathing Lady Capulet (Caitlin Sullivan) and Tybalt (Donald Davison, Joe Hothschild), blood on the brain and murder in the future. It’s in Paris’ (Jesus Arroyo) well-cut but muted gold garb, open arms and charm presenting a lovely prospect, just not Juliet’s spark. It’s in Mercutio’s (Laurence Gonzalez) bright blue, a marked man and clear neutral, Romeo’s mischievous friend. It’s in Romeo’s (Lester Gonzalez) teasing introduction, snatching Juliet’s mask away like a middle school game of tag. It’s in the stillness of setting eyes on each other. It’s in Juliet’s caressing hand both in their first morning together and her last breath. It’s in their more pedestrian, more believable points of contact, the way they touch and embrace one another in a non-balletic way, in a way you might see offstage and in your own life. It’s in their very first dance together, their slightly swooning movements reminiscent of the swirling, sweeping sensation we all feel when falling in love.

It’s found in the fact that everyone onstage is responsible for telling the star-crossed lovers’ story.

The corps de ballet was gorgeous. I may be biased because I know them all, but I found that the corps provided more than enough context so the show lacked nothing for not having elaborate sets. Their costumes and constant commitment weave this sort of living tableau, a beautiful, breathing tapestry always filling the stage, the feud never forgotten or too far away. The motions declared nobility, the costume designs draped decadently, and the colors sung deep reds and warm golds. It all perfectly juxtaposed and framed our Juliet in soft white.

As a dancer I have a hard time watching shows, or even going to the movies. I just can’t keep still or keep staring at one place for too long. But the Lyceum Theater is so intimate it always blurs the line between actor and audience. Our director Javier Velasco makes excellent use of the space, setting certain characters strutting right down the aisles of the theater. This breaks the fourth wall, bringing another dimension into play. You could reach out and touch Tybalt if you’d mustered up the courage, which makes the spectator experience far more dynamic than usual. You didn’t fall asleep looking at the stage because you were alert, looking around you for surprise entrances. The sheer nearness made you feel as if you were more than a witness. The story sometimes literally came from the audience itself, so you weren’t only there, but in the thick of it.

My first experience with performing Romeo and Juliet was in college. I was only supposed to choreograph the masque ball scene, but was very strangely cast as Juliet. This was my first time speaking onstage, so I was terrified. It turns out that much of our ballet training translates perfectly into theater acting. I had to learn how to speak and project, had to get comfortable with my voice, but I knew how to move onstage. Traditionally, performers aren’t meant to turn their backs to the audience. It’s considered improper and problematic to storytelling especially, but not only, when speaking. Velasco fearlessly defies this rule and never lets the space dictate his choreography. Dancers’ backs often face the audience, and the effect is fantastic. On one hand, it’s just a 180 degree turn, so the front is now the back of the stage. On the other hand, it’s a 180 degree turn! Everything’s different. Instead of the conventional watch-them set-up, you’re with them. The view here is more natural, more meaningful behind the dancers, and more thrilling for being a bit voyeuristic, like looking through the keyhole to secret, stolen moments.

I find that the trick to performing Shakespeare, as either an actor or a dancer, is to make the age-old tragedy relatable. Relevant. Real. I felt clumsy wielding Shakespeare’s beautiful but cumbersome words. They didn’t roll off my tongue. I thought Romeo and Juliet would never be my story. Yet with no words and only Velasco’s simple, powerful staging coupled with his signature and exceptional musicality, it is everyone’s story. You can see yourself loving this way. It’s not the dragon-slaying grand gestures that convince us of true love. It’s the little things.

Steffi Carter

Author of “Date a Girl Who Dances”

San Diego Ballet, 3rd year Independent Contractor