Becoming Romeo & Juliet: Helen Starr and Dale Brannon on Alun Jones’ 1985 premiere

By Hallie Beard
Photos: Helen Starr and Dale Brannon in 1991

In 1985, Helen Starr and Dale Brannon stepped onto the Whitney Hall stage in Alun Jones’ world premiere of
Romeo & Juliet. But they did not step onto the stage as Starr and Brannon, esteemed principal dancers and choreographers of Louisville Ballet — they took those first graceful steps as two young, starry-eyed lovers in fair Verona, ruled by passion and fated to lose their lives in the battle of the Montague and Capulet families.

While Alun Jones, who led the Company as Artistic Director from 1978-2002, was the choreographer for the classic Shakespearean work, the debut was the product of hours of dedicated collaboration and character development between Jones, his wife Starr, and her dance partner Brannon.

“It was always a work we did together,” said Brannon. “You felt like you choreographed it, too, that it’s your ballet, too.”

Jones and Starr began working on Romeo & Juliet at the small studio on Bardstown Road Louisville Ballet called home at that time, now known as the Bellwether Hotel. The work grew in pieces, adjusting and adapting as a living piece of art. Even once completed and set on the stage, accompanied by opulent costumes and sets, it took on a life of its own through its vibrant central characters.

Brannon’s interpretation of Romeo “was always morphing, even during a performance. It all depended on the energy I felt from the audience and where I needed to take them.” 

After a review of opening night that critiqued his performance as too serious, he reevaluated the character: “I needed to figure out how I could do the tomb scene with a smile on my face, for Romeo to be the romantic he was…remembering her beauty, referring back to the part that moved somebody – that crazy, fiery youth.”

For Starr, every movement originated with her emotional approach to the young Juliet. 

“[The ballet] had to be created as if you were the character,” she said. “It couldn’t be me. It had to be Juliet reacting to make it work.”

In school, Starr had experienced the 400+ year old drama as many of us have — as a serious, cautionary tragedy. But a London performance of the play starring the esteemed Dame Judi Dench gave her a different take on the character. Dench had “a fit of the giggles” during her portrayal, lightening the role in a way she hadn’t seen before. 

“I’ve never forgotten it, that extraordinary rush of emotion,” she said. “That’s what I put into the balcony scene, this feeling [Juliet] doesn’t know what to do with…the agonies of being a 13 year old having a crush!”

Taking on the role of Romeo had a similar effect on Brannon, who remembered dancing Romeo as a student. “My solo in the balcony scene was what I did as a kid, so it took me back to when I was passionately in love as a teenager.”

The success of the timeless classic extended beyond the joint work of the trio; Alun made a point to involve as many members of the community as possible as extras in the production, calling up dancers from the early days of the civic company to create the background of the sprawling story.

For many reasons, the production holds a special place in Helen Starr’s heart. She was 45 years old at the time of its premiere, and though she had danced many dream principal roles in her illustrious career, she had never had the opportunity to portray Juliet before. 

“I’m just so grateful that I had a chance to do this role,” she said. “I’m just very grateful.”

Romeo & Juliet runs from March 1-2 at The Kentucky Center. Click here for tickets.