Lucas Priolo is facing a life marker that not many 33-year-olds run into: retirement. After 10 years as a principal dancer with the Texas Ballet Theater, and six years before that with Ben Stevenson at the Houston Ballet, he is retiring after the 2013-2014 season.
It’s an issue that all dancers have to deal with decades before people in other professions do. Some teach, some choreograph, and others find new careers altogether. For Priolo, it’s fortuitous that his post-dance future has already been set. At some point, he’ll take over the jewelry business founded by his grandfather, Sofia Jewelry in Mill Valley, Calif. He has already been designing jewelry and will eventually follow in his father’s footsteps of running the company, the third generation of a family business.
“I get to go and design beautiful creations and make people happy,” Priolo says. “I bejewel them.”
Of course, making people happy with his beautiful creations is something, as a dancer, he has been doing for a long time. He’ll have several more chances to do that this season, playing two of his favorite characters in Ben Stevenson’s versions of famous ballets: First, Romeo in Prokofiev’s ballet of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet ; and in the spring, the Prince in Swan Lake , which will feature the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s score. This will be the first time the Texas Ballet Theater will have live music for a full-length ballet in five seasons.
“ Swan Lake is my favorite prince to play, and I love the juxtaposition of the two [characters],” he says of the tragic Romeo and the dashing Prince Siegfried.
Romeo, of course, is not a prince. He’s a young man in love, forced into fighting and murder because of two warring households. For Priolo, who has played the part twice before at Texas Ballet Theater, it’s a role in which he finds more depth each time.
“This is [three] years after the last time I played it, and I’m a more mature dancer,” he says. “I want to look at [roles] freshly or they get stale. Ben does the same thing, too, with his choreography. Thoughts will be different, or actual steps will be different.”
A native of the Bay Area in California, Priolo began his professional ballet career as a student of Stevenson’s, who drafted the long-legged dancer into his Houston Ballet as a teenager. At Houston Ballet, he was in Romeo and Juliet several times, in the corps. He remembers the principals who played the role that he now relishes. “I still steal stuff from them,” he says, laughing.
The first time he played Romeo for TBT, he starred opposite dancer Julie Gumbinner, a dancer he met in Houston and who later became his wife. They have two children. For his first entree into that role, he studied the Shakespeare play and the character.
“I felt that it was something I needed to find,” he says of the character. But, he admits, for this performance and the one before it, he didn’t put too much stock in research of the character, which has been played by some of the world’s greatest actors across various media, including opera, theater and film.
“I was being too analytical with it. I like to pull it from inside, somewhere, through rehearsals and through Ben’s suggestions. It seems to work better for me for whatever reason,” he says. “There’s a saying that once you learn to act you can’t dance anymore. That’s true. I feel more comfortable in going to that dark place that’s required of Romeo.”
For a principal ballet dancer, who portrays a lot of prince roles, he finds Romeo a refreshing change.
“Princes go through emotions, but don’t lose it. You might be sad, but you’re a prince,” he says. “But as Romeo, you’re fighting for your family, and the love of your life just died. It think it’s harder to get there, to go to that dark place to let your emotions be raw for everyone to view. You want the audience to feel it in their heart, you want them to ride on that ride with you.”
Taking Stevenson to the world
As he did in 2010, he will star opposite Carolyn Judson as Juliet. They will play the star-crossed lovers on opening night, Oct. 18, and Sunday matinee on Oct. 20.
At the other three performances, the characters are played by married couple and recent parents Carl Coomer and Leticia Oliveira, who became engaged during the 2010 R&J ; and also Sasha Kotelenets and Betsy McBride. Priolo’s wife plays Lady Capulet in this performance.
Although Priolo has his life in jewelry planned out after dancing, and he doesn’t want to teach ballet or choreograph, he did find out something unexpected this summer. He was sent to France to set Stevenson’s Three Preludes — a work he has danced several times — as a coach, or repetiteur.
“I took the family and I loved it,” he says. “I thought I would never set a ballet; it never occurred to me. But I felt very at home with it. I love to share Ben’s work with the world.”