"I ne'er saw true beauty till this night," Romeo says after meeting Juliet in Shakespeare's play. And, indeed, those star-crossed lovers stunned Thursday night, when the Pennsylvania Ballet opened its 55th season at the Academy of Music with the company premiere of Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet.
Artistic director Angel Corella has been revisiting the full-length ballets during his five years leading the company, restaging many. But in the case of Romeo & Juliet, his ideal was the MacMillan version, which Corella had performed many times with the American Ballet Theatre. It is replacing the John Cranko that had long been in the Pennsylvania Ballet repertoire.
Both versions, set to Prokofiev, are lovely, and which one is "better" is largely a matter of taste. I prefer some elements in the Cranko, including the balcony scene. But the new-to-us MacMillan is studded with gorgeously inventive duets.
For a ballet with a woman's name in the title, MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet focuses heavily on the men. But Lillian DiPiazza as Juliet was the highlight of Thursday night's premiere, especially her range of emotions. Her Juliet is a young teen who still plays with dolls and hides behind her nurse's skirts yet grows up in front of our eyes when she meets Sterling Baca's Romeo.
DiPiazza moves quickly but believably from coy to passionate to despair, remaining true to the high drama of a teenager even as she moves into the world. One minute, she is leaping trustingly into Romeo's arms. The next, she is writhing on the floor, unable to see how her parents would accept her now-secret husband.
Baca is an excellent dancer and strong partner, but his emotions are more controlled. He seemed to be dancing for himself in the balcony scene rather than creating a bond with DiPiazza.
The larger scenes impress for the sheer number of people moving around the stage in rich red, gold, and blue costumes. But sometimes it's hard to tell Montague from Capulet.
There are also sections that seem out of touch in today's #MeToo era. Romeo and his friends tease Juliet's nurse mercilessly, and Romeo lifts and ducks behind her skirts. Juliet's parents think nothing of bringing Paris into their daughter's bedroom, where they push her to marry him in front of her unmade bed. And among the women, a trio of harlots get a large chunk of stage time.
The men had most of the best dancing. Along with Baca, standouts included Ian Hussey as Tybalt; Albert Gordon and Jack Sprance as Mercutio and Benvolio, who generally came as a pair; and a group of mandolin dancers, led by Peter Weil, in inexplicably fuzzy costumes.