Romeo & Juliet, cast to the hilt

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday May 5, 2015
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San Francisco Ballet closed its season with a blazing performance of Romeo & Juliet, which artistic director Helgi Tomasson choreographed for the company 20 years ago and has never looked better. For opening night, the ballet was cast to the hilt with first-rate performers in every major role, including the important character parts for Juliet's parents, Lord (Val Caniparoli) and Lady Capulet (the commanding Sofiane Sylve), Friar Lawrence (Ricardo Bustamante), and the all-important role of her Nurse and confidante, played with telling generosity by Sherri Le Blanc. Sylve is principal dancer, and the others all former stars who have great stage presence.

The production is magnificent: great live music by Sergei Prokofiev, for a huge orchestra including saxophone, mandolins, and mighty clouds of brass, skillfully conducted by Martin West; beautiful Renaissance scenery and costumes by Jens-Jacob Worsaae; fantastic sword-fighting choreographed by Martino Pistone, who joined the troupe to play the Duke of Verona; and Tomasson's extremely well-crafted dances, which tell the story in intricate detail and occasionally rise to the level of genius, in the ballroom dances, which work out like chess-games to bring Romeo (the cherubic Carlos Quenedit) and Juliet (the divine Sarah Van Patten) to meet cute in the midst of elaborately geometrical quadrilles. The dances pit the lovers against powerful social forces so that we see what they're up against, and we see them triumph even in their deaths, and we believe they were right. This is tragic as the ancients understood it. The spectacle  gives us a vision of the deepest conflicts in our society, and a clear sense of which side we should be on.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit in Helgi Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Can there be anyone who does not know this story, how Romeo and his friends crash Juliet's debutante ball? She's come of age, it's her presentation to society, the family's looking to marry her to the Duke's kinsman, the County Paris? You remember her cousin Tybalt, the preening macho thug, who next day kills Romeo's best friend Mercutio, the witty hothead, in a fight in the streets? Which gets Romeo banished from the city after he's secretly married Juliet?

What you may not suspect is the magnificent, sepulchral tones of the scenes in church, first when Friar Lawrence marries Romeo and Juliet in secret, and later when he gives Juliet the potion that will make her seem dead. These scenes must have atmospheric solemnity, and Prokofiev's music has a deep, druggy timbre that makes you accept the seriousness of their purpose, and accept the potential for heroism in Juliet. She's not just a young girl: she's in this for life or death, she's met her man, she's defied her family and all their power.

There have been many productions of Romeo & Juliet since the great danced-drama version by Leonid Lavrovsky in the 1940s. Though all have added more dancing to a spectacle that was almost a silent movie, none has surpassed it in actual power. But Tomasson's modernization is a worthy contender, especially with Van Patten as Juliet, who seriously rivals Galina Ulanova, who created the role in 1946, as a tragic heroine who makes you care about her fate. She has the gift of dramatic projection and of intimate, deep understanding of the music, so she can dance and act at full-bore power at the same time. In the past, she's not been strong in pirouettes, but last Friday night her standing leg was unbelievably strong, yet all the projection of tenderness and mute appeal that was in the upper body was what you responded to. The performance grew; she was still a child in the first scene, a young woman at the ball, a tragic heroine by the end. Every moment was spontaneous.

With Paris, her arabesques were like Ulanova's: clear, magnificent, and unchanging. In the balcony scene with Romeo, they were suspensions, and in renversees, they seemed to stretch time as her leg swept around her. She seemed to stay up forever, then melt around the corner into the next step. The whole time, you felt the flood of impulses moving through her.

This had started already in the ballroom scene. When she was presented to society, she was self-possessed. When she gave her hand to Paris, she allowed him to touch her but did not give him any weight. But when the figure of the dance brought her to face Romeo, everything changed, you felt her whole body being pulled toward him.

Quenedit was a wonderful partner for her. He softened and yielded to her in the same way, and his whole body smiled in response to her. He is a big guy, thick in the waist, juicy of thigh, but he's tender with her, he makes her feel safe. Though he's not pretty, I found it possible to want them to make love with each other. I felt this especially in the geometric ballroom dances. Tomasson has never done better than these dances, where the two lovers manage to get intoxicated with each other while everybody else dances their prescribed figures like clockwork.

Van Patten excels especially in the footwork. She uses her feet like Balanchine wanted, they reach out "like hands." When her leg reaches back into arabesque, it's like a lance, monumental, unmoving. Like Ulanova's arabesque, it's chaste, thrillingly clear, the line is perfect, eternal. With Romeo, it's altogether different, she's chosen him and given himself to her. They knew each other instantly, it's mutual. It's so romantic.

I must praise the antagonists Taras Domitro (Mercutio) and Anthony Vincent (Tybalt). I have never felt the fight seem so real, like the taunting of two adolescent men feeling their powers. Domitro has every gesture of disdain at his command, yet you can't say that Vincent is at a loss. One is Cuban, the other African-American, and they both seem to know the lexicons of streetwise gesture. When Tybalt stabbed Mercutio, I doubled up in my chair. I felt it, and I saw Tybalt wipe six inches of blood off his rapier, and I knew he knew that Mercutio was a goner, even as Mercutio took a good five minutes before all the blood had slid out of him. As Mercutio joked, "Tis not so deep as a well, not so wide as a barn-door, but tis enough."

Highest possible praise to all concerned, especially to the mountebanks, Norika Matsuyama, Francisco Mungamba, and Wei Wang; and corps members Benjamin Stewart, Myles Thatcher, Kimberly Braylock, Max Cawthorne, Jordan Hammond, Alexander Reneff-Olson, and Lonnie Weeks. Van Patten dances again this coming Sunday. Then we don't get to see SF Ballet dance again till the end of July.