The Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre and Mercury Baroque team up for ‘Romeo and Juliet’
by Rich Arenschieldt • Photo by Gabriella Nissen Photography
Dominic Walsh Dance Theater (DWDT) and Houston’s Mercury Baroque (Mercury) give audiences a somewhat apropos Valentine’s Day story, reprising an edgy production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Additionally, both groups recognize their LGBT supporters by treating them to an exclusive after-show dessert reception on February 14 in the Wortham Theater’s stylish Green Room.
Gay choreographer Dominic Walsh, founder and artistic director of his company, and Antoine Plante, artistic director of Mercury Baroque, premiered this work, set to the music of Antonio Vivaldi, in 2006.
Walsh is known to many Houston ballet enthusiasts from his 17-year tenure as a principal dancer with Houston Ballet. After a successful performing career with the Ballet, he founded DWDT in 2002.
“Since I had previously performed most of the male roles in Romeo and Juliet with Houston Ballet, I wanted to take a fresh look at the work,” Walsh says. “To do that, I returned to the text.”
For those audience members afraid of having to endure another tightly wound storybook Romeo, fear not—Walsh has jettisoned that portrayal completely. “Aside from some of the theatrical elements of the work I did at the Ballet, I didn’t bring any of those aspects to DWDT when I set out to create my own version. The text gave me the major themes I wanted to highlight. I chose not to be constricted by a ‘traditional’ adaptation. Instead, I wanted to focus on other elements that I felt had been previously overlooked. When Antoine and I got together to discuss those themes, we found that all of them could be well supported by Vivaldi’s music.”
In addition to a heavy choreographic footprint, this Romeo and Juliet gives listeners lavish amounts of ear candy as well. With a full orchestra, soloists, and a 12-member professional chorus, opportunities to hear a variety of Vivaldi’s music abound.
Many listeners are familiar with this composer’s ubiquitous work for violin and orchestra, The Four Seasons, but know little else. According to conductor Plante, this limited exposure does the famous “Red Priest” a disservice. “All Baroque music is heavily centered on passion, and Vivaldi is no exception. What Mercury strives to do is to reconnect listeners with the very intense emotion originally associated with all Baroque art, especially music. Much of Vivaldi’s output is very well suited to the intense drama found within the play.”
Collaborators Plante and Walsh worked in tandem to create a seamless and relevant production that remains true to the Bard’s text. “The key thing we wanted to accomplish,” Walsh says, “was to accompany a strong story line and support the various aspects of the drama that occur throughout the piece.”
This effort utilizes various means to illuminate the narrative. “It’s important to know what type of artist would best support the purpose of each role within the work,” Walsh says. “I also realized that some parts would be more effectively portrayed by singers [rather than dancers], or in the case of Friar Lawrence and Paris [Juliet’s originally intended groom], by speaking parts. In a standard ballet, both of these individuals are relegated to a ‘walk-on’ status. In our version, the Friar and Paris have increased significance. When we created this Romeo and Juliet, Rob Bundy [former artistic director at Stages Repertory Theater] helped us to accomplish this with great success.”
Amalgamating text, dance, and narrative into a continuous musical score was challenging, according to Plante. “Mercury usually performs in a concert setting, presenting compositions in their entirety. In Romeo and Juliet we use specific musical movements and pieces that integrate the soloists or chorus into all aspects of the production. We have also superimposed Shakespeare’s text onto Vivaldi’s music. This presented us with additional complexity, both musically and textually.” Through careful consideration and planning, Plante and Walsh created a framework of musical pieces that flow very well and also reinforce the action onstage.
Putting aside the mechanicsof revamping a classic, at its core Romeo and Juliet remains a tale of youthfully impatient sensuality, something Walsh embraces within a Baroque setting. “All artistic aspects of this time period evoke some form of sensuality.”
While audiences may see elements of sexuality in Walsh’s work, the choreographer offers a more subtle interpretation. “One of the main distinctions I make is the difference between eroticism and sensuality,” Walsh says. “This is an area where Americans and Europeans see things differently—especially where the artistic aspects of nudity are concerned. Audiences here sometimes equate nudity with sensuality, whereas in other places, nudity and sensuality can be separated.”
Collaborative theatricality is a central artistic mantra for both of these performing arts organizations. “Dance and opera are experiencing a resurgence of partnership with each other,” Walsh says. “Now each can recombine in a new way—sometimes with unexpected results.”
As performing arts entities broaden their artistic expression, Houstonians can expect to see an interesting melding of various art forms in the future, spearheaded by smaller upstart companies like DWDT and Mercury. “The reason that I named this company ‘Dance Theater’ is that I realize the importance of dance, not just as ballet,” Walsh says. “In a narrative work such as Romeo and Juliet, the movement needs to instigated by the experience expressed. The addition of Mercury Baroque to the mix adds creative vitality to the process and product.
“When I left Houston Ballet,” he says, “I was developing a reputation as a choreographer. People expected me to shake things up a bit.”
Wherefore art the cool version of this oft-retold warhorse? In Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater, February 11, 13, and 14.
Love, death and chocolate: requisite components for a successful Valentine’s Day.
Following the 2 p.m. performance on Valentine’s Day, OutSmart readers and members of the LGBT community are invited to meet the choreographer, conductor, and other artists in the Wortham Center’s swanky Green Room for drinks, desserts, and fencing lessons.
For additional information, contact Mercury Baroque at 713/533-0080 or mercurybaroque.org. For tickets, call 832/251-0706.
Rich Arenschieldt also writes about JD Doyle in this issue of OutSmart magazine.