We are all Capulets and Montagues: Richmond Ballet’s Romeo Juliet

Stoner Winslett speaks about the famous tragedy’s parallel with some of modern society’s problems. Here’s why you should see the ballet this weekend.

Photo by Sarah Ferguson

How do you put on Romeo and Juliet if your art form involves the use of zero words? Juliet can’t bemoan the fact that her only love sprung from her only hate. Romeo can’t complain about being fortune’s fool. The nurse can’t tell anyone to get to a nunnery–it seems like a daunting challenge for a ballet.

Yet, modern interpretations of plenty of Shakespeare plays have abounded without using any of the Bard’s original language. West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, and 10 Things I Hate about You, to name just a few movies you should immediately watch after you finish reading this article.

With R&J, the secret is the very human emotions that keep the plot moving. And it’s not just love, which is a part of the recipe, sure. As two teenagers who have just met, though, their infatuation is, if not hard to relate to, at least hard to take seriously.

Much older, deeper, and, arguably, stronger, is the automatic and overwhelming hatred between the two families. It almost defines them–Montagues live to hate Capulets and vice versa. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt doesn’t know Romeo, doesn’t really care all that much about Juliet, and probably doesn’t even remember why the two families are feuding in the first place. He just knows that any Montague who touches a Capulet has got to die.

Spoiler alert: both Romeo and Juliet do die. In that sense, generations of hate is stronger than their three-day love. It’s grief and the love between parent and child that are the common elements that ultimately bring the two families together. Bummer it took so much death for them to realize it.

Richmond Ballet Artistic Director Stoner Winslett sees a lot of parallels between the conflicts in Romeo and Juliet and the conflicts in our community.

Deep in the middle of rehearsals, press events, and about a million pre-opening loose ends to tie up, Winslett takes a few minutes to think seriously about what we all need to learn from this story. “You see in Verona sort of a microcosm of the whole world,” she says. “You have these two factions who probably don’t even remember why they don’t like each other. The hatred between them affects the entire community–most profoundly the children, and it’s always the children who meet a tragic end from it. If I see one more picture of a kid washing up on the Greek shores of the Mediterranean…or if I open the RTD and see a girl who was shot in her own community because she was caught in the middle of gang violence…” She leaves her sentence unfinished.

It is easy to be intimidated by Winslett because she runs such a tight ship with a steely kind of commander-in-chief poise, but she’s really rattled when she thinks about this stuff.

“We have not solved this problem in the Western World! We think people have advanced since Shakespeare’s time, but it’s still there,” she says.

“When you immediately hate a person because their last name is Capulet or Montague or because of the color of their skin or their religion, when you say ‘We’re not going to let people of color do this, or Muslims do that’…We have not gotten away from just labeling entire groups of people and hating them just because of that label.”

Winslett and Burn are giving a you a Romeo Juliet this weekend that’s full of troubling emotions. Their job–and the job of all of the dancers and musicians–is to bring your emotions to a boiling point.

How do they do it without the advantage of language? Winslett thinks dance is probably one of the purest expressions of love there is. It’s cathartic, what you feel is so large it’s making your body move, and, let’s be honest, there’s a whole lot of physical touching with your partner. After all, how many articles have you read about how body language can be a lot more telling than what people say?

Kirk Henning and Valerie Tellmann-Henning will dance the titular parts on the same stage on which they were married, and that’s something special. But Cody Beaton enjoys her first title role opposite Fernando Sabino, and speaking from someone who has seen the rehearsal, their chemistry is something to see. Kirk and Valerie’s bubbling joy in each other is clear, and Cody does a different, shyer Juliet to perfection. Fernando is brilliant and charming as ever, do we even need to say that again?

“Cody has had such an incredible season,” says Winslett, who isn’t normally prone to gushing. “She and Fernando were an incredible pair in the Russian part of [Winslett’s own] Windows, and they just do it entirely differently than Valerie and Kirk do.” But both couples are beautiful, so…what’s the solution? Get two tickets for two different nights.

Thanks, Richmond Ballet. Dang.

Winslett and Burn have both been known to call this a good introductory ballet for those who like a little more action–there’s swordfighting, after all, and the story is so familiar that you don’t have to worry about cramming beforehand. “The score is power,” she says simply of Prokofiev’s masterwork. “And in my opinion, all good dancers take their cues from the score. If you hear the music of Prokofiev, you’ll know exactly how you should be [as a dancer]. The swordfights, the Tybalt music in the ball scene, it’s completely haunting and takes over your whole body. Understanding the story, the internalization of the story–I could never in my life imagine memorizing lines from Shakespeare and standing on a stage and saying them, but if you played me the Prokofiev at the same time, maybe I could.”

At any rate, she offers a personal money-back guarantee, that she says no one ever takes her up on because, she believes, no one needs to. If you don’t find the ticket worth the money, she’ll see you’re reimbursed, and she’s quite serious. It’s part of her mission to help the community see that ballet isn’t an elitist art. Starting at $20, she reminds me, tickets are not that much more than a movie, and the experience you have will be worth a lot more.

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Make your Valentine’s Day weekend all about Richmond Ballet’s Romeo Juliet, with four performances February 12th through 14th. Buy tickets online or call 804.344.0906.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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