When State Street Ballet (SSB) Artistic Director Rodney Gustafson found out that a theater production of Romeo & Juliet had been scheduled at the Granada just days after his company’s performance of the same story there, he almost pulled the plug. It was an impulse to preserve his company’s dignity—a flashing sense that his production might be somehow diminished by the competition. But the Granada’s Laura Inks, director of education, convinced him this wasn’t the case—that the two could be partners rather than rivals, and that the community would benefit as a result.
If things had gone that way for the Montagues and the Capulets, Romeo & Juliet would be a very different story.
Gustafson’s initial resistance was in keeping with the way performing arts organizations have operated for decades. As in the business world, it has been largely about competition rather than cooperation. But times change, and Gustafson has always prided himself on changing with them. The business-savvy director now says he’s interested to see how Santa Barbara dance lovers and theatergoers will respond to the two “diametrically opposed” productions. SSB performs its wordless version on October 23 and 24; The Acting Company and Guthrie Theater production of the play is one night only, October 29. Those who buy tickets to both productions are eligible for a discount, and public school students will attend the productions as part of their study of Shakespearean literature.
Agreeing to move forward with the Granada’s plan was just one way Gustafson has adapted the way he does ballet business. Though he says his choreography for this production is “as classical as we get,” he’s made concessions for modern audiences. Prokofiev’s score for the original ballet would easily fill three hours; Gustafson has cut it back to two 45-minute acts. “Today’s audiences tend to want shorter productions,” he explained.
The sets and costumes for this production represent yet another adaptation on Gustafson’s part—in this case, to the economic recession. SSB’s move from the Lobero Theatre to the much-larger Granada for most of its productions means sets and costumes need to take a step up in scale accordingly. But to bring the company’s existing Romeo & Juliet wardrobe up to snuff was going to be an enormous undertaking. Instead, Gustafson landed the perfect deal: a rental of the complete sets and lavish designer costumes from the Utah-based company Ballet West, which is in the process of selling the entire collection to Sacramento Ballet. SSB’s longtime costume designer Christina Giannini led me through rack after rack of ornate brocade and crushed velvet, empire bodices and slashed sleeves, fur stoles and lace necklines. Designer David Heuvel is a star in the costume world, and Giannini fingered these pieces admiringly, explaining their effect on the dancers who will wear them: “Suddenly you’re not just a kid in a leo; there you are in a rather serious dress.”
Though SSB can’t afford to bring in the Santa Barbara Symphony for this production, they will have 22 dancers plus a few character roles—the largest cast they’ve ever presented. Among the dancers is Arsen Serobian, a newcomer to the company who danced with the Bolshoi before coming to the States and who will dance the role of Romeo. “It’s really interesting to do new choreography,” he said of Gustafson’s production. “It doesn’t have to be done the way it was in the 1940s.” Victoria Luchkina, who has been with SSB since 2007, will dance the role of Juliet.
The entire production, from the costumes to the choreography, will come together in just over four weeks of rehearsal, and during my visit, SSB’s studios and offices were filled with the buzz of preparation. This Romeo & Juliet is a ballet for the 21st century: big, beautiful, budget-conscious, and relatively brief. It remains to be seen how the “rivals” measure up.
State Street Ballet will perform Romeo & Juliet at the Granada on Saturday, October 23 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 24 at 2 p.m. For tickets, call 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.