Atlanta Ballet's John Welker, Alexandre Barros, and Miguel Angel Montoya in Maillot's "Roméo et Juliette." Photo by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet

Atlanta Ballet’s John Welker, Alexandre Barros, and Miguel Angel Montoya in Maillot’s “Roméo et Juliette.” Photo by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet

The Atlanta Ballet has outdone itself in this year’s Valentine’s offering, a reprise of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Roméo et Juliette.” Bringing back a cast very similar to last year’s was a stroke of genius by Artistic Director John McFall, as it allowed the dancers to concentrate on performance and the creation of characters instead of having to focus on the “steps.”

The sculptural décor is sparse but incredibly effective, the lighting is (pardon the pun) brilliant, and the choreography draws the audience to it like a blazing fire on a winter’s night. The impeccably crafted, recurring movement themes parallel Prokofiev’s beloved score, exquisitely performed by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Maestra Beatrice Jona Affron. And there is nothing better than live ballet with live music; the whole production is a feast for the senses.

Don’t expect a traditional story line. The production is timeless: it could be happening five hundred years ago or yesterday. Recounted by Friar Laurence through a series of flashbacks, this “Roméo et Juliette” looks, not at the politics of feuding families, but at the passions of youth. Embodied by dancer John Welker, Friar Laurence, tortured by his role in the tragedy, brings the story to life and guides the audience through the calamitous events. Here, Friar Laurence is not the soft, gentle, middle-aged cleric often seen in Shakespeare’s play, but a younger, driven, deeply caring man who seeks desperately to make his parishioners’ world a better place. Instead, perhaps because of his youthful inexperience, his choices bring that world crashing down around the very people he wants to help.