Carolyn Judson and Lucas Priolo danced the titles roles in Texas Ballet Theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
Carolyn Judson and Lucas Priolo danced the titles roles in Texas Ballet Theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

It’s been a rough five years for arts groups, thanks to a topsy-turvy economy. Texas Ballet Theater has been forced to give up live music accompaniment and to pare down some administrative jobs. But the first night of the company’s season-opening production of Romeo and Juliet last weekend in Bass Performance Hall showed none of the strain. The performance ranked with the strongest I’ve seen from the group.

Choreographed in 1987 by TBT artistic director Ben Stevenson when he led the Houston Ballet, the lavish production opened Houston’s then-new Wortham Theater. David Walker’s wonderful Renaissance-inspired costumes still look fresh, and his scenery, lit by Tony Tucci in subdued shadows, creates a somber backdrop for Shakespeare’s tragic story.

As a story ballet, Romeo and Juliet might not be to everyone’s taste. There is abundant pantomime to further the storyline and no show-stoppers. Emotion and drama are the watchword, giving dancers opportunities to explore stylized movements to create feeling and build character.

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TBT presented the piece in 2010, and the opening-night cast was excellent. This time around the same cast was called on, and they were extraordinary, creating a gripping experience as the iconic love story unfolded. As Romeo, Lucas Priolo, in his eight years with the company, has matured into a compelling dancer with unique stage presence. There is a special chemistry between him and his Juliet, Carolyn Judson, a lovely dancer who brings playful innocence to the young girl and confused anguish as her world turns upside down. She has a wonderful way, too, of pausing a moment when on pointe Arabesque, one leg raised behind her, that gives the movement a floating quality. Their balcony scene, as Judson came down the stairs to be with Romeo alone for the first time, was a rapturous awakening of young love that tugged at the heart and brought a roar from the crowd as the curtain came down.

The villainous Tybalt, an aristocratic bully, was remarkably well played by the tall, handsome Alexander Kotelenets, who projected the arrogance of the man as well as his youthful doubts of not being everything he should be. Kotelenets danced one matinee performance as Romeo that I missed, but expect to see him in more principal roles down the road. Thomas Kilps was an irresistible Mercutio, an energetic imp who couldn’t resist teasing the self-important Tybalt to a point at which they end up at sword-points and Mercutio is killed. Kilps is a first-rate character dancer and major plus for the company. There are two swordfighting melees in the ballet, both staged by fighting coach Brian Byrnes, that brought to mind again the swashbuckling Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s.

Juliet’s family-approved suitor, Paris, was danced by Carl Coomer, who generated a moving portrayal of a man who truly cares about the object of his affection, and he was endlessly tolerant of her refusals to commit to marriage; his grief at her apparent passing seemed genuine rather than dutiful.

Anna Donovan, company ballet mistress and longtime principal dancer with the Irish National Ballet, took the character role of Juliet’s nurse and was a loving, contented nanny who did her best for her charge.

Stevenson has been busy just about everywhere the last few months. He went to China for two weeks last summer to work at the Bejing Dance Academy, which he helped found in the 1970s. The Academy has worked with 30 studios for rehearsals and classes, an incredible luxury, but this year expanded to an eye-popping 60, which must make it the biggest dance facility in the world.

Two weeks ago he was in Houston to stage his pas de deux Twilight for the Houston Ballet, which the company will include on its upcoming New York programs. He was also in San Antonio to set Cinderella for the San Antonio Ballet, and this week he relaxes in Mexico before heading to Brisbane, Australia, to set The Nutcracker for the Queensland Ballet. The director there is his protégé Li Cunxin, the Chinese dancer who studied with him in Houston and defected to the United States in 1981. Li was the subject of a film biography, Mao’s Last Dancer, which recounted the diplomatic dustup made by his decision. After a 16-year career as principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, Li moved with his wife and children to Australia, where he was a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet in Melbourne. He was named director of the Queensland Ballet last year.

Stevenson returns to Fort Worth in November to oversee TBT’s The Nutcracker just in time for the holidays.