The Stuttgart Ballet, Germany's leading troupe, will undertake two performances of a dance based on an English playwright's tale about lovestruck Italians. The production was choreographed by the late South African John Cranko, and it's directed by Canadian Reid Anderson. The opulent sets and costumes, conjuring up Renaissance Verona, were designed by the German Jürgen Rose.
The two Juliets, Elena Tentschikowa and Yseult Lendvai, are Russian and French-Canadian, respectively, and the two Romeos are English (Douglas Lee) and Canadian (Jason Reilly).
"Stuttgart is a very international company," said Anderson, a former principal dancer who has led the company for the last seven years. "We represent 26 nationalities."
Adding the United States to the artistic coalition will be the hometown Tucson Symphony Orchestra, whose instrumentalists will play music by the Ukrainian-born Sergei Prokofiev.
"It's a wonderful score," Anderson said by phone from Costa Mesa, Calif., where the troupe was performing last week. "It's a win-win situation. Our conductor flies ahead to prepare the orchestra, and then we have one dress rehearsal. Our conductor conducts--either principal conductor James Tuggle or associate Glen Prince--because he knows our tempo, how fast Mercutio does the variations and so on."
The tale of the starstruck young lovers is full of crowd scenes, from the streets where Mercutio and Tybalt battle, to the lavish ballroom (rendered by Rose in glamorous black and gold) where Romeo and Juliet first meet. Twenty-two Tucson dancers and actors will join their 50 international colleagues on the stage, taking the parts of soldiers and dancing couples, after being selected in auditions scheduled for Monday, March 31. (See the sidebar for details.)
"We do local auditions everywhere," Anderson noted. "The ballet has lots of supernumeraries. It's a fun thing for people, and a nice opportunity for them. They get to interact with our dancers."
Romeo and Juliet, a ballet in three acts, is a signature piece for the Stuttgart. When it premiered in 1962, "it became an overnight success," Anderson said. "We've been dancing it ever since. It has also become a mainstay for many companies around the world," including the National Ballet of Canada, the Australian Ballet and the Paris Opera.
The Stuttgart Ballet recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its current incarnation, but dancers have been dancing ballet in the southwest German city since 1609. Originally, they performed in the Court of Württemberg, but they eventually became a troupe serving the local opera company, a typical arrangement in Germany.
"In Germany, any city that calls itself a city has an opera house," Anderson explained. "All ballet companies in Germany in those days were part of opera companies. Mostly they danced in operas. That was their raison d'être."
In the late 1950s, the company, then known as the Ballet of the Württemberg State Theater, began shifting its focus, undertaking large-story ballets, and importing such international stars as the Native American dancer Maria Tallchief.
Cranko was hired in 1961 to revitalize the troupe. Then 34 years old, Cranko had already wowed audiences with his choreography for the New York City Ballet and the English ballet companies Sadler's Wells and the Royal. Cranko immediately began creating ambitious new works, particularly the story ballets, like Romeo and Juliet, that have since become the troupe's trademark. Critics were delighted with the Cranko transformation; writers Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell, for instance, credited him with "turn(ing) the provincial German company into one of the world's leading ensembles."
As Anderson put it, "It became a real ballet company, the first in Germany. The dancers stopped dancing opera. Cranko changed that whole aspect of dance in Germany. Now there are many full-fledged companies, in Hamburg, Munich, Berlin."
Anderson, who had trained at the Royal Ballet in London, joined the Stuttgart at age 19 in 1969. The company turning point he remembers best is an acclaimed production that opened at New York's Metropolitan Opera house in Lincoln Center.
"We danced Taming of the Shrew in June 1969," Anderson said. "Overnight, we became THE Stuttgart."
He danced with the company for 17 years, taking such starring roles as Romeo, before returning to Canada to lead first Ballet British Columbia and then the National Ballet of Canada. Cranko died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 45 in 1973, and the leadership of the company fell to several others, including dancer Marcia Haydée. Anderson returned to the troupe as artistic director in 1996.
Though Anderson has premiered nine new company works in the last three years, he takes his responsibility for keeping Cranko's dances alive seriously. The work is "based on classical ballet technique," he said, "but what you really notice about Cranko, the steps really mean something. Each step takes you someplace emotionally. They're not just pretty movements. At the end of a pas de deux you know more about the characters in a psychological sense. The dancing is always on track with the story. He tells a story through dance.
"That's why Romeo and Juliet is so popular. You don't have to know anything about dancing. You can come and really love it even if you've never seen ballet before."