Monday, May 15, 2006

Dancing Shakespeare: Dominic Walsh's Romeo & Juliet

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Domenic Walsh and Paola Georgudis in Romeo & Juliet
Photo by Jim Caldwell

Dominic Walsh is about to take the “theater” part of Dominic Walsh Dance Theater (DWDT) to a new level. This May, Walsh tackles Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare’s classic tale of troubled families, adolescent love, and deadly miscommunication. Walsh enlists a synthesis of all the arts to create his most ambitious dance/theater piece to date.

Walsh is no stranger to Romeo & Juliet; at 16, he played the incense holder in Ben Stevenson’s production with Houston Ballet. He might have been an extra, but he was paying attention. Walsh rose through the ranks and ended up in the dancing Mercutio and the coveted Romeo role. “Each time I played a major role I re-read the play,” says Walsh. “I was always thinking what I would do with the piece.” The stirrings of creating his own ballet have been in the works for a more than a decade. “When ideas come to me they never leave me alone,” says Walsh. “I have to do them.” Romeo & Juliet was that kind of relentless, creative urge.

Walsh’s approach emphasizes the complexity of the human relationships. “Its Juliet’s story,” says Walsh. “In the course of the story she goes from a teenager, to a woman, to a widow. Her maturity is remarkable.”

Walsh is one studious choreographer; he spent amble time in the Verona library researching the story. He saw every film version several times and spent months pouring over the text. He knows Ben Stevenson’s ballet inside and out, and is also familiar with the Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko versions as well. Walsh wanted a fresh approach. “I asked myself what art form best conveys what this character is all about,” says Walsh. The decision of whether each role should be danced, sung, or spoken depends on their role in the story. For example, Paris is played by the young actor, Brandon Hearnsberger. “Paris cannot communicate in Juliet’s language, so he speaks instead of dancing,” says Walsh. “They have no chemistry.”

Walsh has amassed an impressive team of collaborators for his multi-disciplinary approach. Working with Walsh is a participatory activity; his tight team of dancers enjoy Walsh’s democratic method of dance-making. “How my dancers integrate their bodies and style of movement into my approach is what is fascinating and gratifying for me,” says Walsh. “They also understand and help me develop the emotional manifestation of the story within the body.” Veterans Paola Georgudis (Juliet) and Lindsey Wagner (Rosalyn/Muse) will be joined by Domenico Luciano (Tybalt), who is completing his first season with the company. New comers Andrea Shelley (Lady Capulet) and Spencer Gavin (Mercutio) have recently re-located to Houston from Miami (Maximum Dance Company) to dance with DWDT. In addition to directing, Walsh gets a yet another chance to dance Romeo. Walsh insists that the dancers learn several parts as a way to both cover each other and deepen their experience. According to longtime company member McGill, Walsh allows the audience to see different sides of the characters. “Dominic doesn’t unload all of his ideas and interpretations on us,” says McGill. “He gives us just enough information to see how we respond, and then shapes it.”

Rob Bundy, artistic director of Stages, is serving as the dramaturg. He has been working for months helping Walsh pull selections from the Shakespeare text. Bundy has directed Romeo & Juliet before but this time around he is here to serve Walsh’s vision. “I live to do this kind of stuff,” says Bundy, a frequent collaborator with DWDT. The piece contains two actors who do not dance or sing. Walsh and Georgudis will also be speaking. “I’m scared,” Walsh admits. “But I’ve been practicing on the airplane.”

In order to get a truly fresh approach, Walsh decided early on not to use Prokofiev’s famous score. Instead, Antoine Plante, founder and director of Mercury Baroque, is arranging selections of Vivaldi. “I listened to my entire collection of Vivaldi trying to match scenes with the music,” says Plante. “From there, Dominic and I met and merged our two visions to create the score. I think that the result is amazing.” As always, Mercury Baroque will be playing live on their exquisite-sounding period instruments.

Jorge Ballina, a Gold Medal award winning Mexican set designer, enjoys working with choreographers who know how to use space. “You can still dance with a set,” says Ballina, “Dominic understands that.” Ballina has developed a framed scrim that changes as the locations shifts and a flexible stage piece that serves as the balcony, bed, and grave.

Nicholas Phillips, the prodigy lighting designer and frequent collaborator with Walsh, will be drawing from period art works, images of Italian architecture, and history. “I take inspiration from Dominic, combine them with the work of the costume and scenic designer, and form my own idea of what the dark and light of this work is going to be,” says Phillips. “The same can be said for the projections I am doing on Ballina's scenery.”

Fabio Toblini, a native of Verona, Italy, had designed five Alley Theatre productions and will return next fall for Much Ado About Nothing. Toblini, an award-winning designer, also designed the costumes for Alchemy, Walsh’s work for the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company. “Fabio’s work has that same organic quality that I use in creating movement,” says Walsh. “He suggests a period of time without being specific. His costumes are more like clothes—very natural.”

Down the road, Walsh has his eye on another Shakespeare play, Titus Andronicus. “I thought I would break myself in with a more familiar play,” says Walsh. Still, Romeo & Juliet is a mammoth project for a small, but highly ambitious, dance company. Walsh has never been one to shy away from large-scale productions. “I’m just a challenge junkie.”

Dominic Walsh Dance Theater presents Romeo & Juliet on May 19 & 20 at Cullen Theater in Wortham Center. Call 713) 315-2525 or visit