Monday, February 23, 2015

Houston Ballet's Romeo and Juliet: A (P)review

[Design sketches by Roberta Guidi di Bagno.]

Last Friday I attended a tech rehearsal of Houston Ballet's world premiere production of Romeo and Juliet. Before then, I didn't even know what a "tech rehearsal" was, but it's the first time the dancers take the rehearsal from their studio to the performance stage with full scenery, in part to ensure that what they've blocked out fits the way they think it will. Artistic Director Stanton Welch, who has created this new production to the music of Sergei Prokofiev, stopped and started the rehearsal at intervals to make small corrections. Ballet Mistress Louise Lester, costume and set designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno, and several others observed and assisted as well.

I've gotten ahead of myself, though. Before the rehearsal, we were treated to a tour of the Houston Ballet's Center for Dance, which is connected to the Wortham Center via a skywalk. The building was opened in 2011 but this was my first time beyond the ground-floor auditorium, where I've attended a few dance talks. The building is airy and modern, with two-story sprung-floor rehearsal studios (one as large as the Wortham stage), an impressive weight/physical therapy room, administrative offices, and even dorm rooms for some of the international and underage dancers. I've also since learned that the building is qualified for LEED certification as a "green" building.

One of the fun stops on the tour was the "shoe room," where each company member has a basket with his or her name containing many pairs of shoes. We learned that a single pair of pointe shoes costs between $60 and $105 (they are custom made for each dancer), and a dancer can wear out a pair in a single performance -- so it's no wonder that the shoe budget for the company dancers is $150,000 per year! Dancers are responsible for sewing on their own laces (sometimes using dental floss because it's particularly strong), and they have elaborate rituals for breaking in their shoes before they even put them on -- this is a scene you see in a lot of dance movies for the sake of versimilitude: ballerinas bang the shoes against doors jambs, run them under water, hold lighter flames to them, and so on.

Next, we saw the costume shop, which is a huge, warehouse-like space with shelves of fabric bolts, sewing machines, bulletin boards with sketches and schedules, and even a sign reminding the wardrobe staff that because casting is sensitive, it is not to be discussed with the dancers. When the casting is announced, by the way, a very complicated grid is put up on bulletin boards outside the main rehearsal studio. I only had a second to glance at it; I would have needed a lot more time to figure out how to read it!

(And one more interesting costume tidbit before I move on: if there is not enough time to properly clean a costume between performances, they spray them with vodka to absorb odor!)

As is often the case with major ballet and opera companies, the Houston Ballet creates original productions and eventually rents them out, but also rents from other companies when necessary. For instance, the costumes for their September 2014 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (my review here) were rented, because even back then the Houston Ballet costume shop was fully occupied with Romeo and Juliet. I have to imagine that the costumes and sets from this production will be in high demand from other companies over the next several years. And, as was the case when I went on a backstage tour of the Houston Grand Opera a year or two ago, I was overwhelmed thinking about all of the logistics that go into planning a season.

After the tour, we walked across the skyway over to the Wortham Center. It's not entirely closed to the elements, but it does keep out the rain, and allows the dancers to move across without having to put on street clothes or traverse the busy intersection below.

Then came the rehearsal, at which the dancers were accompanied by a single piano. Having been a subscriber to the Houston Ballet for seven or eight years, I'm never disappointed in the choreography, but in this case the company has really gone all out on sets and costumes. I have to wonder if it's unusual for the same person to design both -- it seems to me they are related yet quite distinct skill sets -- but the results in this case are spectacular. The "En Pointe with Houston Ballet" blog has a terrific post about the process of costume creation for this production here that is well worth reading. I won't go into the details myself, except to say that sets are lavish and the costumes are actually luscious. Seriously, they were like the visual equivalent of raspberry sorbet -- I wanted to eat them.

My friend and I watched the rehearsal up through the Capulet masquerade with the primary cast, and then the balcony scene with both sets of Romeos and Juliets. And now I can't wait to see the actual performance, when choreography, costumes, set, and orchestral music will be truly integrated. It's going to be lovely. If you want to see a hint, there's a 30-second television promo spot of this ballet, filmed at St. Paul's United Methodist Church here in Houston. And tickets are available here.

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