Big stage, small stage
San Francisco Ballet's 'Romeo & Juliet'
by Paul Parish
Helgi Tomasson's magnificent production of the ballet Romeo & Juliet opened its short run (through Sunday) at the Opera House Tuesday night. This is a full-scale ballet a grand spectacle. It's a Romantic tragedy, one in which the full forces of a large orchestra, throngs of dancers, a ball scene, fight scenes to the death with dangerous sword-play, sumptuous scenery and costumes (by Jens-Jacob Worsaae) and all the ancillary theater arts are mobilized to tell a story, at the heart of which lie two young lovers who want to be allowed to choose each other as mates for life. Without which, life is not worth living. The ballet stirs revolutionary passions in everyone in the audience. "Never again!" This ballet, in all its incarnations, has always meant a great deal to us queers, for obvious reasons, but it's one where we have common cause with the rest of our world here: the emotions are grand, they fill a house that seats over 3,000, and they leave no-one untouched.
It's hard to believe now, but before the advent of movies, the opera house used to be the conscience of a community. At least one European revolution was brought about by an enflamed audience, who spilled out of the opera house in Brussels after Auber's La Muette de Portici and began rioting in the streets. Romeo & Juliet sits squarely in that tradition: Sergei Prokofiev's great score, though it was written in 1935, was held back by Russian censors (and the fear of Stalin's disapproval) until it was politically in line with the requirements of Socialist realism, so that every detail of the score tends to create loathing of the ugly, crushing power of social conventions and of family pride, while on the other hand idealizing the sweetness of young love. The first Soviet Romeo & Juliet swept all before it, enjoyed triumphs on every tour, and conquered London and New York in the 1950s, with tales of audience wonder and frenzy that have rarely been surpassed. Juliet in that production was danced by the great Galina Ulanova – dancers themselves, when they saw her, went out of their minds – which is especially wonderful since she was already in her 50s but seemed truly 14 years old. Ulanova was very great, but part of this power to enthrall is Prokofiev's, whose powers of creating melody, rhythm, character, and mood have made this score so strong, it can hold its own in the symphony hall with no visual accompaniment. I've seen Isaac Stern end a concert with "Juliet's theme" for his last encore, leaving not a dry eye in the house. Prokofiev used brass to create unbearable dissonances which embody the ruthless tyranny of the ruling class, shimmering strings to evoke the lovers, and many special effects, especially the tenor sax, used to uncanny effect to evoke the feeling of being drugged, which makes Friar Laurence's potions and poisons (on which the plot depends) utterly believable.
(Photo: Erik Tomasson)
Every detail of the story is in the music. So all a choreographer has to do is not contradict Prokofiev. Many versions exist, and ours is very good. The ball scene, where Romeo and Juliet first meet, is superb, as are the fight scenes, which are thrilling and (though choreographed) played for tremendous spontaneity. Choreographed with Tomasson by Martino Pistone, an experienced movie stuntman and stunt coordinator, swordsman, choreographer, and actor, these are complex street-fighting scenes that involve climbing the scenery and leaping down from heights, and require careful timing and hours of rehearsal with each combination of dancers, because they are actually dangerous.
Best of all, we have here a Juliet of world-class stature in Sarah van Patten, who performs Friday night (with Pierre Francois Villanoba as Romeo) and has been able to move audiences as Juliet since she was herself 15 years old, dancing in Copenhagen, where Tomasson spotted her and gave her a contract on the spot. She builds the performance from scene to scene so that nothing surpasses the moment in the tomb when she comes back to life. That first breath she takes as she lies there on her own sepulcher is one of the greatest moments I've ever experienced in the theater.
There are four couples playing the roles, all of whom are inspired by the roles and make them their own. Beyond that, the depth of casting SFB can boast is remarkable: this story is full of distinct characters, principal among whom are Romeo's friends Mercutio and Benvolio; his enemy, the preening macho thug Tybalt; Juliet's nurse, and both her parents; not to mention the wedding-party and the acrobats who take up such memorable time in the town square.
Ballet technique was developed to make the smallest gesture visible from a long way away – just as operatic voices are trained to fill a large house, pointe-work lets a ballerina as tiny as Maria Kochetkova (who's barely five feet tall) make her emotions known to the back of the balcony (where the sound is in fact at its best). Audience members do bring binoculars, in order to "see the faces," but I say, if the dancer's whole body does not show you how they feel, they're not really dancing. And the great thing about SFB is, they really dance.
Meantime, across town also this weekend, at the other end of the spectrum, first-rate dancing on an intimate scale is happening at Z Space at Theater Artaud. The phenomenal dancer/choreographer Christy Funsch is showing a series of experimental solos in two formats. In the first act, the space will be divided up into booths, where audience members can see some of the Bay Area's finest contemporary dancers up-close and personal – then again experience them after the space has been reconfigured for Act II.
Among the players are the superb dancers Hope Mohr, Nol Simonse, Fredrika Keefer, Laura Elaine Ellis, Christy Funsch, and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, who are among the very finest contemporary dancers living among us. The whole enterprise is the kind of thing that those who are looking to create new work for the big houses are looking to for ideas.
Funsch Dance Experience, Thursday through Sunday at Theatre Artaud (the old Continental Can factory, now converted), 17th and Mariposa Sts. in the Potrero district, SF. Show up at 7:30 p.m. to see a solo in private.