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Stars shine bright for UNLV Dance's 'Romeo and Juliet'

★★★★☆ - Delicious

Sergei Prokofiev's 1938 ballet "Romeo and Juliet," based on William Shakespeare's timeless tale of young woe, got an ambitious staging by University of Nevada, Las Vegas Department of Dance recently at Ham Concert Hall, in collaboration with UNLV Symphony Orchestra and UNLV Department of Theatre. "In Orchestra 3" overflowed with innovation and immediacy because eight faculty members created original choreography on dance students in an array of diverse styles, student actors echoed dancers with their own portrayals of the characters, and the show was accompanied by a rich, full orchestra of student musicians.

Under the direction of Louis Kavouras with scenario by Dolly Kelepecz-Momot, the varied choreography of Cathy Allen, Margot Mink Colbert, Victoria Dale, Richard Havey, Kavouras, Kelepecz-Momot, and guest faculty members James Jeon and Jiyeon Kim blended seamlessly into a meaningful whole. The sublime orchestra was led by conductor Taras Krysa, and professor Michael Lugering directed the talented actors.

The "Street Dance" rumbles between the Montagues and Capulets were organic and spontaneous, like hip-hop dance-offs that incorporated jazz and contemporary as well as acrobatics. The idea of the purposeful walk took on a new meaning when clans sought to assert their dominance. At first, however, it was difficult to figure out who was who as most of the ensemble wore white shirts; it would've been nice if members from each side wore coordinating colors.

Wooden batons substituted for rapiers in amazing combat sequences that featured dancers in quick, clipped movement that morphed into slow-motion battles. The rival boys were playful show-offs. Malik Gray as Romeo, Zack Frongillo as Mercutio, Jayden McCree as Tybalt, and AJ Vehec as Benvolio created a believable world of adolescent one-upmanship. They leap-frogged and then played a funny game of chicken during Mercutio's variation, bringing humor to the piece. The expressive Frongillo was a stand-out with his clean balletic technique and the cocksure elan of his portrayal, and McCree was his perfect opposite with athletic movement and a tough-guy demeanor of superiority.

Gray was not your typical, impulsive Romeo. He had a regal presence with a Zen quality that made it easy to see how Juliet, danced with purity by Cosette Richardson, would find him impossible to resist. The two shared a palpable chemistry, and once he set eyes upon her his loving gaze rarely wavered. He danced harder in the ensemble scenes than he did in his own variation, but he was a supportive partner during their beautiful "Love Dance" which went from tentative to flirtatious to sensuous with its difficult lifts and soft, quiet embraces.

During one memorable moment he held her high as she arched her back away from him and flung her arms behind her, as if in complete trust and surrender. Richardson mostly danced en pointe, but for the love duet she ditched the toe shoes and danced in nightgown and bare feet, which added another layer of sensuality. She took us on an emotional journey with her portrayal of Juliet, going from a giddy coquette dependent on her Nurse (the funny Kelepecz-Momot), to a lovestruck young woman in defiance of her parents the Lord and Lady Capulet (the courtly Denzelle McAfee and Alexis Hansbrough) and grief-stricken by her betrothal to Paris (Carolyn Lajara-Rodriguez, interestingly cast).

The "Dance of the Party Guests" was a sensory treat in both design and contemporary movement that fit beautifully with the powerful, iconic music. The aristocratic, stuffy revelers lunged and leaped, posed and laughed, and executed a few sideways lifts that ended with mannequin-like women walking on walls. Angel Sandoval's scenic design of gold candelabras and four rolling black flats

splattered with gold (the reverse side represented Verona), Elizabeth Kline's jewel-toned, moody lighting design (the brick wall/backdrop was illuminated with gorgeous colors), and Mallory Ward's steampunk-type costumes of corsets and see-through hooped black skirts was a melding of periods and styles that coalesced into an expression that was modern and unique. The "Folk Dance" was also joyful and the "Dance of the Lilies" captivating and pretty.

The complicated integration of actors into the dance narrative was hit and miss. During key moments they appeared in vignette to speak verse which corresponded to the action while dancers froze in place. When the Prince (Bobby Lang) narrated, or when Lord Capulet (Kristopher Pruett) exclaimed "Come musicians, play" to the orchestra, or when Romeo (Johann Heske) and Juliet (Alexis Hudson) first shyly met while their dancer counterparts froze doing the same, it worked.

But when more complex scenes were enacted, it often took us out of the moment and interrupted the flow of the dance. It was difficult to connect with the actors' portrayals because we were already invested in the dancers' perspectives. When Mercutio (Garrison Lopez-Quizon) had his dramatic death scene, it felt a bit like the actor was stealing the dancer's thunder.

But it all came together in the end. Though the crypt scene unfolded so quickly that when Romeo and Juliet died there wasn't much time to build an emotional response, there was a nice moment when dancer Lord Capulet handed the limp body of Juliet to his actor counterpart, and thus the two versions of the story merged. The final stage picture featured all the performers mourning the sacrifice of their children to the stupidity of their familial feud, just as Shakespeare's tragedy laments.

UNLV Dance pushed the envelope to create their collaborative, tremendous work "Romeo and Juliet," and they should be proud to add it to their repertoire.

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