San Francisco Ballet: A “Romeo and Juliet” with Masterful Dancing and Acting

When Helgi Tomasson set out to choreograph his full length Romeo and Juliet (1994) he said he considered using other music than Prokofiev’s. I’m glad he didn’t. While there is a considerable body of classical music dedicated to the story including Tchaikovsky, Bizet and Gounod, it is only operatic versions that have tried to tell the whole story. Prokofiev’s score was completed in 1935. It was a production at the Kirov in 1940 that began the widespread use of the music by other choreographers. Oddly, before the Kirov took it up the Bolshoi turned down the music as unsuitable for dance. Bad choices with ballets had already proved life threatening with producers and a librettist at the Bolshoi, who had involved themselves with Shostakovich and his ballet, The Bright Stream (also 1935). For a time it was beginning to look like modern ballets and doing time in the gulag were unavoidable companions.  It is of course beautiful dance music, full of rhythm, sliding modalities, careening melodies loaded with chromatic shiftiness and quirky orchestrations. In order to play the plum parts you might wish yourself a violinist, or a tuba player, or an english horn player and even a folk mandolinist. Gluing it all together is Prokofiev’s neo romantic sweep and an unerring sense of variety for each of the fifty or so episodic sections that support the story. Tomasson made the only good choice, sticking with the tried and true.

His production is a lovely one and made truer by a company that can both dance and act with supreme virtuosity and color. What was admirable was the quality of the clearly drawn characters and the naturalness with which they interact, both in the sequences which involved mime, partnering and the ensemble dances. Banished was any sense of formulaic gesture. What remained was well-blended action that moved back and forth across the dance and acting divide with perfect continuity.

Especially excellent in this regard were both Joan Boada as Romeo and Maria Kochetkova with her intelligent performance as Juliet. Her transformation is particularly remarkable and by the time you arrive for the disaster of Act III you feel that it is her maturity and conviction that is supporting the ballet. With her slight build she cuts a genuine image as a child bride, making the betrothal to Paris that much more incongruous and menacing.  Boada cuts more of an everyman figure in his portrayal and it suits him.  Of the two big scenes which define the best of their dancing it is the movement in the Act III leave taking scene that shines brightest. With its imaginative lifts, it outweighs both the challenges and the intimacy of the balcony pas de deux. The later scene in particular was dealt unfortunate blows on Friday when a stagehand was briefly caught on stage at the beginning of the scene change and then again as the follow spot fluttered and seemed to focus everywhere except on the dancers. It compromised the iconic scene of the ballet. In a production where the sets and designs were generally excellent, the balcony set felt underwhelming though the dancing itself was fine. At the conclusion, it lacked the drama and visual appeal of John Cranko’s staging. You could have preferred the scene liberally covered with blue light as an alternative. It was perhaps the production’s single staging choice that didn’t make sense and proved aesthetically costly.

The action was dressed beautifully with sets and costuming by Jens-Jacob Worsaae. The scene at the crypt was particularly striking with its iron gates and funereal plinths. The opulence of the ball, dominated by heavy costumes and grim party atmosphere played well against the meeting of Romeo and Juliet. I liked the long, slow timing of their encounters and the building action to the faceoff with Tybalt. Tomasson handles the big scenes well with lots to watch but still maintaining a focus on the central characters and the story building action. The production follows Prokofiev’s precise music and scene sequencing and ran in the standard three acts.

The production also leaves plenty of room for excellent character dance and other diversions. Particularly good were Courtney Elizabeth and Pauli Magierek as the high-kicking Renaissance harlots; so too were Jamie Garcia Castilla and Gennadi Nedvigin as Benvolio and Mercutio, sidekicks to Romeo. Their pas de trois prior to the ballroom scene was terrific and full of invention and athleticism.  Nedvigin’s stylish humor shone brightly in his scenes as the irrepressible provocateur of Verona.  Damian Smith as Tybalt mostly understated his role while embracing the acting and a large dose of sword play.  The sword fighting scenes were also excellent but I confess to missing the rhythmic sword play of the Cranko version in which the clashes count time with the music. Martino Pistone designed the sword work and fight choreography. Lastly the acrobats, played by Dores Andre with Benjamin and Matthew Stewart, were virtuoso in every regard.

(The music was played by members of The Pacific Symphony with San Francisco Ballet Music Director Martin West conducting.  The fleet and stratospheric playing in the violins for Act I was less than clean for the performance I heard, the brass had their troubles in the somber chorales of the music for the scenes at the chapel of Friar Laurence and the mandolins in the Aubade were too faint. But the score remains the best 20th century music for a full length story ballet and mostly sounded that way again on Friday night.)

Performances continue on Sunday, October 2nd at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

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