Tragedians in dance tights

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday May 4, 2010
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Pierre-Francois Vilanoba and Sarah Van Patten in San<br>Francisco Ballet's <i>Romeo & Juliet.</i><br>Photo: Erik Tomasson
Pierre-Francois Vilanoba and Sarah Van Patten in San
Francisco Ballet's Romeo & Juliet.
Photo: Erik Tomasson

Romeo & Juliet, which opened at the Opera House Saturday night to a tumultuous reception, is a ballet based on Shakespeare's play and set to the great score by Serge Prokofiev, which drives the action and is so powerfully made, so terrifying in its tragic powers and so poignant in its moments of tenderness, that it can lift good dancing to greatness, and can lift great performers to great heights. Last Saturday night was a great evening in the theatre for the whole San Francisco Ballet company, who danced at a very high level indeed, and for two principals: our Juliet (Sarah van Patten) and Mercutio (Pascal Molat), who gave performances that rank with the best I have ever seen.

Indeed, van Patten's dying scene, which is a solo (from the moment Romeo sinks back, having tried to get a response from her inert body, then drunk the poison, kissed her one last time, and fallen down lifeless, she's the only person moving on the stage), moved me beyond anything that Lynn Seymour or Zhanna Ayupova, even the great Ulanova herself had made me feel. From the moment she woke up, all the slightly phony quality of SFB Director Helgi Tomasson's staging fell away. It was suddenly so very real; Romeo had locked the gates, she was alone, and it was cold, nothing but iron, stone and air that smelled awful. Then she saw Romeo, and I heard – we all heard – every thought that went through her head. I didn't start to cry til she wrapped herself in his arms and died, but I couldn't stop, head in my hands weeping, til the curtain calls were over. I managed to applaud Mercutio and the orchestra, but I was a wreck.

Van Patten was a great actress as well as a great dancer, totally spontaneous, all the way through – plausibly girlish at the beginning, smitten at the ball, thunderstruck after the balcony scene, and gone on him after they woke up in bed. Tomasson's setting, new a decade ago,   has excellent sets and costumes, a splendid ball scene, and superb fight choreography, but the generic nature of everything else, even when it was very good – like Dores Andre kicking herself in the back of the head when the Stewart twins lifted her like a chicken on a spit in the marketplace divertissement – well, whatever wonderful circus that is, it's not Verona, no matter what the sets and costumes and music say. That's just a bunch of modern kids doing grand allegro of a very dazzling kind.

No choreographer since Lavrovsky has been able to deal with the Stalinist bedrock of the score without fudging; but who can resist trying? The great versions of the 1960s relied on Zeffirelli's revolutionary "flower power" production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which starred the young Judi Dench (!) onstage, then Olivia Hussey in the movie, and which transformed the class struggle into a generational conflict, so the teenagers against the parents replaced the true-lovers against the Whole Power Structure antagonism that gives Prokofiev's score its backbone. Queers know that this conflict remains very important today. The battle lines are clearly drawn in Tomasson's superb ball-scene, where Juliet is about to enter an alliance of Great Families until she and Romeo realize they will not have that. All non-communist productions downplay the politics; ours turns the city of Verona into a theme park where the populace "do ballet" (very entertainingly, I concede).

My readers don't need to be told the story, nor of all the movies, operas and West Side Stories that have been made from it. Nor do you need to be reminded that before there was movie music, the great composers were already writing large-scale symphonic music that told detailed stories. Tchaikovsky is not the only composer who wrote a Romeo & Juliet that was not a ballet score. So Prokofiev writes in a great tradition; indeed, his score is often played stand-alone. His score has been mined, by great violinists such as Isaac Stern, who'd play Juliet's theme as an encore and leave not a dry eye in the house.

So Juliet can be one of the great classic challenges to a ballerina. Prokofiev wrote the score with Galina Ulanova in mind, working under the Stalinist requirements that the music should be intelligible to the proletariat and console them for their struggles, for a production that opened in Russia during dark times of WWII. Juliet must represent everything good, noble, innocent and human.

Van Patten meets this challenge. She represents everything that you'd be willing to die for, in a person who's so spontaneous, alive and modern there's no hint of allegory. For the talents and skills of a dancer and an actress to be united in one person is rare.

Pascal Molat can do it, too. As Mercutio, he had us with him all the time, In the middle of the fight scene, he mimes, "Excuse me, I've got to sneeze." It was hilarious.

Everybody was good. As Romeo, Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, this late in his career, seemed like a young kid. Many stood out through the ranks: Yuri Possokhov in the character role of Lord Montague showed the majestic power of gesture he learned at the Bolshoi; Courtney Elizabeth stood out in the crowd, along with Luke Willis as a particularly obnoxious follower of the Capulet party. Damian Smith (Tybalt), Hansuke Yamamoto (Benvolio), Quinn Wharton (Paris), Elana Altman (Lady Capulet), Val Caniparoli (Juliet's father), Anita Paciotti (Juliet's Nurse, a juicy role) were all very fine.

The weakest spots were some of the characters whom we most needed to believe held power: both Friar Lawrence and the Duke need to be cast from strength, with actors who will make us believe in their spiritual or temporal authority. Both, alas, were weak.