Saturday, May 02, 2015

San Francisco Ballet - Romeo & Juliet

San Francisco Ballet
Romeo & Juliet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
May 1st, 2015

Two young lovers who were not supposed to be together. Warring families. A chain of tragic circumstances. The gripping narrative of Romeo & Juliet has bred much artistic and creative exploration. So many different interpretations have been forged: classic, contemporary, post-modern; play, movie, ballet. And like any prolific story, some versions are better than others.

San Francisco Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet, choreographed in 1994 by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, is not just better. It is one of the best. And currently, my favorite Romeo & Juliet. Tomasson’s composition is all about the details and everything works in tandem. Choreography unlocks the intricacies in Prokofiev’s score; character interactions reveal nuanced and layered relationships. This Romeo & Juliet speaks deeply and opening night was full of equally outstanding performances.

Carlos Quenedit’s fun-loving, carefree Romeo strolled through the village with Benvolio (Hansuke Yamamoto) and Mercutio (Taras Domitro) in the early moments of the ballet. Sarah Van Patten’s Juliet first appeared in Act II’s second scene, looking out a window high above the stage. Her expressive face glowed with joy, wonder and naïveté. Over the next two and half hours, both these characters embark on a journey (catastrophic though it is). Romeo transitions from youthful camaraderie to tortured outcast and Juliet from sweet delight to frantic desperation. With such a vast transition over a short period of time, these first introductions are crucial. As the tumultuous drama unfolds, it’s easy to forget and lose sight of their initial hope and innocence.

Act I’s opening moments also simultaneously expose the profound hatred that exists between the two houses. The sword fight that breaks out in the first scene occurs with very little provocation. The message is clear - whenever the Montagues and Capulets encounter one another, pandemonium erupts like an epidemic.

Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit in
Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet
Photo © Erik Tomasson
On their way to crash the Capulet party, Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio dance a fun pas de trois; a brief variation of technical bravado and charismatic acting. Quenedit, Yamamoto and Domitro delivered on both fronts, though the unison was a little shaky. After Romeo and Juliet meet at the ball, they begin a touchingly sweet pas de deux. In it, you see one of the first transitions in their relationship, a move from shyness toward adoration. And then, onto Act I’s finale, the Balcony Scene. Tomasson infuses this famous duet with a wide range of emotion - care, affection, passion and desire informing each movement. Their hands as they clasp together; the vast extensions; the spinning, flying lifts.

Act II of Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet may be short, yet it contains important plot points and narrative extremes. In it, Romeo and Juliet are joyfully (and secretly) united in marriage by Friar Laurence (Ricardo Bustamante). Very soon after, tragedy befalls the square – Mercutio dies at Tybalt’s hand and Tybalt at Romeo’s.

As Act III begins, Romeo and Juliet must part, Romeo having been expelled from Verona for killing Tybalt. They say farewell through another gorgeous pas de deux that also includes some subtle foreshadowing. In a series of jetés, Juliet is lifted into the air and looks like an angel soaring through space. Unbeknownst to them, this is the last time they will see each other alive. Motifs from this and the balcony pas de deux reappear when Romeo arrives at the crypt in the ballet’s final scene. In his grief, he tries to recreate these moments with a lifeless Juliet.

Van Patten and Quenedit gave divine portrayals in the title roles, but a number of other performances made the night magical. Steven Morse’s Paris was memorable, stately and noble. One of the most haunting sequences in the ballet happened after Juliet finally agrees to marry Paris in Act III, Scene III. Perfectly in line with the drama of that instant, both Morse and Van Patten looked like absent ghosts, completely devoid of emotion as they danced together. Later in that same scene, Juliet’s five friends arrive to wake her in the morning, and their pas de cinq was some of the best unison dancing of the evening. As the two harlots, Dores André and Dana Genshaft were cheeky and confident. And Domitro’s Mercutio was fantastic. Domitro is an amazing technician, but his acting in the scene where Mercutio perished was something else.     

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