Los Angeles Ballet's 'Romeo and Juliet' a happy alliance between dance families

The Montagues and Capulets may be feuding once again, but in Los Angeles Ballet's forthcoming production of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's tragic love story is a happier family affair.

The company, led by husband-wife team Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary, concludes its 10th-anniversary season by being the first American troupe to mount choreographer Frederick Ashton's "Romeo and Juliet." The piece will be directed by Peter Schaufuss, whose mother and father danced the roles of Juliet and Mercutio in Ashton's original 1955 production for the Royal Danish Ballet.

"We have a real family tradition with this ballet," Schaufuss says.

Schaufuss inherited the rights to the ballet on the 1988 death of Ashton, the George Balanchine of Great Britain. Schaufuss has danced the role of Romeo many times, and his son Luke will dance Mercutio when L.A. Ballet begins its run May 7 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, followed by performances in Redondo Beach and at UCLA.

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Set to Prokofiev's score, Ashton's "Romeo and Juliet" is distinctive partly because he choreographed it before Bolshoi director Leonid Lavrovsky's interpretation went to London in 1956 and inspired choreographer John Cranko to create his own version, which then inspired Kenneth MacMillan.

Ashton's inspiration, Peter Schaufuss says, was "just the music and Shakespeare's story."

Being a keeper of Ashton's legacy as well as family tradition has made Schaufuss selective about the companies he chooses to perform the ballet. He insists on overseeing rehearsals personally, which means finding just the right match.

"There have been several companies in the U.S. that have been after doing it, but I never felt there was really a proper connection," Schaufuss says.

That is until he saw Los Angeles Ballet perform "Sleeping Beauty" last year. He was encouraged by the company's promising musical and technical talent, he says, combined with its connections to the Royal Danish Ballet.

"Thordal has very strong ties and links with the Royal Danish tradition, having been trained there and grown up there and taught there," Schaufuss says. "I also have very strong ties and links with Colleen because we were in New York City Ballet together in the '70s. So we also have strong friend ties. In our profession, it almost becomes like family ties."

And so an alliance between ballet households was formed, and now Schaufuss is supervising three weeks of rehearsals at Los Angeles Ballet Center. By staging the Ashton version of "Romeo and Juliet," the L.A. company joins the elite ranks of the English National Ballet, the Royal DanishBallet, as well as Schaufuss' own company, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, as torch-carriers for the Ashton tradition.

"Los Angeles Ballet is in good company," says Schaufuss, who believes that the troupe's performance of Ashton's work could be an entrée for it to tour internationally.

Being the first American company to produce Ashton's "Romeo and Juliet" is a milestone for Christensen and Neary, who have spent the last 12 years building the troupe's profile in and around Los Angeles. The company has grown to 35 dancers from 21 in the last decade, its operating budget is nearing $4 million and the troupe frequently fills performance halls during its seasonal tours of Southern California.

"Romeo and Juliet" has long been on Neary and Christensen's bucket list for the company. Neary, who will play Lady Capulet, says putting on the ballet had to do with timing.

"For many, many years, people were saying, 'When will you do 'Romeo and Juliet?' And I said, 'When we're ready. And we find the right version and when the company is ready itself,'" she says.

Christensen, who will join Neary as Lord Capulet, says the Ashton version "fits beautifully" into Los Angeles Ballet's repertoire of narrative ballets and plays to the company's storytelling strengths.

"Romeo and Juliet" also presents some hurdles, namely acclimating to Ashton's particular choreographic manner, what he calls an "English style" of ballet that emphasizes the placement of the head and shoulders, fast footwork, lyricism and simplicity over showmanship.

"It's been really challenging," says principal dancer Allyssa Bross, who will be Juliet on opening night. Having trained at the School of American Ballet in the Balanchine style, which emphasizes speed, vigorous athleticism and syncopated musicality, Bross had to adapt to the specificities of Ashton's style.

"I think I was a little shocked when we first started learning just how detail-oriented it had to be," Bross says.

But Schaufuss believes that Los Angeles Ballet is up for the task.

"It's for them to rise to the challenge," he says. "And I think they will rise to the challenge."

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