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In Fair Verona, Where We Lay Our Scene...

Sergio Neglia and Sherri Campagni in Neglia Ballet Artists' Romeo and Juliet

Sergio Neglia is premiering an all new production of Romeo and Juliet, but the feeling is definitely old school. Neglia, Buffalo’s own Argentinian-born ballet star, is a traditionalist at heart, and when it comes to putting his mark on Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers, he harks back to an earlier era. “The newer ballets are more about the steps than the story,” says Neglia. “I am more influenced by the classic versions I grew up with, especially Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography.”

Sherri Campagni and Sergio Neglia

Neglia has danced many a Romeo himself, but found his restless imagination ready to add to the already large canon of Romeo and Juliet ballets. For Neglia, the story’s heart and soul come first, the steps come second. A confirmed individualist, he’s not content to just have danced a litany of famous and some not-so-famous versions of this great ballet. “I like to express the way I feel the story goes.” A stickler for artistry, Neglia objects to the current fashion of technical inflation at the expense of depth.

Sherri Campagni, Neglia’s Juliet, has been doing her own in-depth research by watching video tapes from the Bolshoi and Kirov. “Back then, it was all about emotion; the dancer could say so much just with their eyes,” says Campagni, Neglia’s partner since 1994. “It’s a great role for any ballerina. Juliet goes from a child to an adult in the course of two hours,” she says. “I get to visit that new love feeling. It’s just a dream role.”

Campagni considers herself lucky to have crossed paths with a dancer of Neglia’s reputation. “I remember seeing this amazing and gorgeous dancer in class at the Empire Ballet. His accent was thick and I didn’t understand a word he was saying,” recalls the ballerina. “When he said he wanted to dance with me, I was floored.” Campagni and Neglia have since become Buffalo’s most famous ballet team. “He completely transformed my dancing and my body,” she says. “He made me.”

Neglia remembers meeting Campagni with the same awestruck joy. “I saw her dancing and knew immediately I wanted to partner her. She had technique, but needed to move into herself as an artist.”

Campagni describes partnering with Neglia as a type of conversation. The steps are all doable, but there is another layer of expression that touches on a deeper challenge. “It’s crucial to be honest with the story, so that the audience gets involved in what you are going through and feels part of the ballet.” Prokofiev’s luscious music makes the dancing easy. “It’s to die for,” Campagni quips. “When Juliet’s father learns that she will not marry Paris, the music just gets in your bones.”

In the bard’s tale the lovers may be in their teens, but with the acting chops required, the ballet needs a couple of seasoned pros in the leads. “You need mature artists,” says Neglia. “I wanted to dance the part when I was 17. My teacher and mentor Ivan Nagy told me I just wasn’t ready, and he was right.” Keep in mind that Dame Margot Fonteyn was well into her 50s when she danced the role of Juliet with Rudolf Nureyev for the famous 1966 film.

Set designer Ron Schwartz is going for the historic approach as well, conjuring an old world Verona for this production. Schwartz buried himself in architectural books to achieve a 16th-century Italian village. “The idea is to capture the feel of this ancient city, but also play up the Gothic feel,” says Schwartz, who has designed for the Jewish Repertory Theater and the Irish Classical Theater. Romeo and Juliet marks Schwartz’s first ballet and collaboration with Neglia. He freely admits the scale of the project is daunting to say the least. “Sergio has clear ideas about what he wants,” says the fearless set designer.

Neglia’s former student Tomasz Kumor of Colorado Ballet dances the role of Mercutio. Originally from Krakow, Poland, Kumor claims Buffalo as his home. His professional credits include stints at North Carolina Dance Theatre, Chautauqua Ballet, American Repertory Ballet, and Ballet Nouveau Colorado. In addition, Todd Fox, a former principal dancer of the Cleveland Ballet, dances the role of Tybalt.

For Neglia, the relevance of Shakespeare’s classic love story to today’s world is a no brainer. “Just look outside, the story is still on the street today,” quips Neglia. The potency of this tragic narrative drives Neglia’s choreographic imagination into high-gear. “It’s easy, really; I just connect to the ideas in the story,” he says. “And through the sorrow, the steps just come along.” Neglia makes no apologies for taking the traditional track. “Sure ballet is evolving,” he says, “but it’s also wonderfully old fashioned.”

Neglia Ballet Artists perform Sergio Neglia’s Romeo and Juliet on Saturday, May 10, 7:30pm. Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main Street (847-0850). $18.50-$32.50, plus a $62.50 ticket that includes reception following performance., Shea’s box office.

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