Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, one of the most popular and enduring ballets, was performed by the State Ballet Theatre of Russia in a charming rendition at the McCarter Theatre on Saturday night.

State Ballet Theatre of Russia, Romeo and Juliet
State Ballet Theatre of Russia, Romeo and Juliet

Many audiences are surely familiar with the classic tale of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, as well as Prokofiev’s setting. Though the work has been performed countless times, both in whole and in part – since several suites are performed as orchestral works independently of the ballet itself – many audiences may not know that the version passed down to us is not the original version penned by Prokofiev. The composer’s original ending was censored by the government, only recently having been released by the Prokofiev family and the Russian State Archive. The Mark Morris Dance Group famously gave the world premier of the original ending in 2008.

On Saturday, the State Ballet Theatre of Russia production did not offer the frills of grand spectacle, nor the provocative ending recently unearthed by musicologist Simon Morrison and given life by Mark Morris.

What their Romeo and Juliet did offer, however, was a strong cast of young and talented dancers. The ensemble was composed of the touring company of the Voronezh State Theatre of Opera and Ballet, founded in 1870. The touring company, known as the State Ballet Theatre of Russia, was formed in the 1990s, first visiting the US in 2006-7.

Before performing at the McCarter, the company stopped in Chicago, where critic Sid Smith lambasted the performance because other “traveling troupes manage more technical panache, while this production... failed to rise above its ho hum sets.” Surely the priority of the State Ballet Theatre is paying their dancers, not their set designers. Still, the physical production surpassed what you might see on stage by the local American Repertory Ballet.

Though other touring companies, as Smith notes, do manage to travel with more elaborate productions, perhaps he does not take into account other limitations involved. Companies that do tour with more highly technical productions usually perform in one location for several nights in a row, and have sufficient time to make sure the production works, given the technical specifications of each venue. The production by the State Ballet Theatre is designed to be set up and struck quickly, allowing the company to travel more frequently and to a wider variety of venues.

The simple sets also emphasized the company members – a talented group of young and attractive dancers. Though Alexander Lityagin performed the role of Romeo admirably, Ivan Negrobov, playing Romeo’s friend Benvolio, stood out for his skill as both an actor and a dancer. Negrobov embraced the youthful vitality, wit, and charm of Benvolio, articulating his movements with cunning glances and sneaky smiles.

One ensemble member stood out above some of the other dancers, appearing as one of the unnamed “ladies” in Act I Scene V. Her movement was elegant and strong, and her face beamed with sincere joy. Often dancers train themselves to maintain a strong smile even when performing some of the most strenuous contortions. Yet these expressions often become tired for the audience unless they are genuine. With this dancer, however, you could see how deeply happy she was to share her passion with the audience.

In truth, many of the dancers on stage expressed a similar sincerity in their work and gratitude towards their audience. One got the sense throughout the entire performance that the company members were engaged and enjoying themselves. Choreographer Michael Lavrovsky should have trusted the honest intentions of his dancers, and avoided resorting to histrionics for some of his story-telling.

The State Ballet Theatre of Russia’s Romeo and Juliet is perhaps not a must-see performance of this classic ballet. However, the performance provides a charming evening of entertainment featuring a talented, young ensemble.