writers on dancing


Great Ensemble Playing

"Romeo and Juliet"
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco
Sunday, May1 and Saturday, May 7, 2005

by Paul Parish
copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish

Helgi Tomasson's "Romeo and Juliet," which he made in 1994 on Yuri Possokhov and Elizabeth Loscavio, has enjoyed a sold-out run at the end of the ballet's season. Saturday night, there was such a crowd as I've rarely seen, and such performances as we could none of us believe.

Tomasson's choreography is not interesting—but who cares? He himself understands that it is a ballet where you want the dancers to simply run off with the show. And Saturday night there was fantastic ensemble interplay.

EVERYBODY was on, down to the harlots (Amanda Schull, yes, the star of "Center Stage," and Pauli Magierek, who was fantastic as Mercutio's little bit of booty). They picked it up and ran with it, and the stage was ablaze with excitement, with rhythmic movement and flaring personal gesture.

It was a great evening for Peter Brandenhof, a truly dangerous Tybalt, whose first slashing cut at Benvolio actually seemed to cut Nicholas Blanc on the lip, his response was so stunned and so hotly timed. Brandenhof has never seemed so valuable—so full of menace, so angelic in appearance (he has the face of a Piero della Francesca). With his Danish training, he is the only mime in the company with a feel for how to play parts like Gurn and Hilarion, and his Tybalt is the best out of a lot of good Tybalts here (including Damian Smith's, which is meaner, cooler, not so sexy).

Saturday night was probably Tina LeBlanc's last Juliet, and one of Andrew Mogrelia's last appearances in the pit as musical director/conductor. The orchestra sounded glorious, simply glorious, except for a weird flubbed note at the very end, in the descending modal scale that ends the ballet—the music to which Juliet dies. It didn't spoil anything—indeed, it was like the dropped stitch that needs to be put into anything dazzling, to keep the gods from envying your powers, when you're flying that high. LeBlanc had a fantastic evening, carving her phrases, initiating new phrases within phrases as the music inspired her—as when in an upside down lift in the bedroom scene a brilliant developpe surged up like a blade from a position we thought was already complete.

Tomasson's choreography is not in itself interesting, but it does offer the dancers room to express themselves, to vary the attack with the impulse of the moment—no mean virtue in a ballet like "Romeo and Juliet," which in Prokofieff's realization is literally a melodrama, the greatest in its kind (and Lavrovsky's is its greatest choreographic realization) with far too much music to be a classical ballet.

What Tomasson has done is to assemble here a company of dancers of an extraordinary calibre, with so deep a bench that injuries can sideline dancers like Guennadi Nedviguine, Ruben Martin, and God knows who else is out at the end of the season, and there's still the impression of boundless vitality on the stage.

With dancers like Joseph Phillips, a multiple competition medal winner, in the acrobats' divertissement, and Frances Chung (who can do double step-ups into a grand rond de jambe that turns into a renversé where she kicks herself in the back of the head before doing pas de bourrée into her next step-up, smiling hugely the whole time through a phrase that would give ballerinas a nightmare), the sense of a dancers' world onstage is so strong you may be forgiven for forgetting that it's supposed to be Verona.

The choreography for the marketplace is, on a duller night, kind of a mess of undifferentiated grand allegro. The good girls and the bad girls are scarcely any different, the Capulets no different from the Montagues, everybody seems to come from the upper-middle class (the harlots seem to be slumming), there's almost nothing of a market-place to it—nothing like the orange-fights of Smuin's version, and no sign of a cripple or a peasant. But when it's firing on eight cylinders, I don't care.

The BOYS!—Joan Boada as Romeo, Pascal Molat as a Mercutio boiling with wit, and Nicholas Blanc as a Benvolio with immaculate technique and a French feel for gesture. They have the energy of a hip-hop company. When they show off on street-corners, they do 6, 8, 10 pirouettes. Mercutio forces his, but it's in character. Mercutio himself is pushing for those extra turns, and when Benvolio wants to show that he belongs to this group, he lowers his passé and does blur spins, ends on half-toe, turns his head to Goldilocks and flings his wrist up to high fifth. (Blanc can do things with his eyes, chin, shoulder, nose, and wrist in quick sequence that remind me of the way Violette Verdy could pull off a sequence of brilliant quick gestures above the collar-bone, each slightly refocussing the picture and ending with a flourish that left you giddy with delight.)

With such dancers, just give them pretexts.

But Tomasson's choreography deserves real credit in the ball-scene. In every "Romeo and Juliet," the way that formal dance requirements play against individual passions is the big deal of the scene. The accidents of pairings that arise in the sequences of the quadrilles lead to an introduction and separation of people, and in the midst of all this Juliet encounters Romeo. In Hollywood terms, they "meet cute"—and no version of this ballet has made this happen, in my experience, better than Tomasson's. Nobody's version approaches Lavrovsky's for making you feel the crushing hideous force of the social order, and the need for US to rise up and change it—though that feeling is certainly present in the music, it passes for family pressure in all western versions.

Which brings me to Boada's great trengths as Romeo. He really has a through-line to his interpretation. His feeling for Juliet is very strong, and we feel it throughout as more than just eros. In the tomb scene, after despatching Paris, he goes to the gates and locks them, with an intention I've never felt before. Here's his chance to lock the family out, whatever happens from here on is just between him and Juliet. She is his whole world from here on, and you really feel it.

All the way through, the way he and LeBlanc have played to each other has been inspired interaction. In her case, we see it especially strongly in the pro forma dances when she has to dance with someone OTHER than him.  It's expecially strong in the poignant betrothal dance with Paris (Rory Hohenstein), where she does everything in her power to acknowledge Paris's worthiness without giving him anything that should be Romeo's.

There is a reason dancers want to do "Romeo and Juliet." Kyra Nichols once told me she'd love to do Juliet. To go beyond the steps and create a character, to be that kind of creature, is clearly a great kind of satisfaction, both for the artists and for the audience.

Earlier in the week, in a different performance with a less-brilliant supporting cast, the young ballerina Sarah van Patten single-handedly gave us an experience I'd have driven to Los Angeles to see. Van Patten, who's twenty now, was dancing Juliet in Copenhagen at the age of sixteen when Helgi Tomasson happened to be in Denmark staging something else. He saw her performance, and he hired her within a few days. Now we see why.

Van Patten has a natural sensuality that makes her smallest movement fascinating. It does not feel studied or rhetorical, rather that we are getting to witness something that's essentially private. The way she rolls down into plie can take my breath away. Indeed, it's the way she takes her time with some things, and moves with incredible glee and alacrity into others, that makes the movement mean something. These moments are never the result of technical difficulties—she has some technical problems at times, but they do not concern her… which makes her impetuousness all the more thrilling.

Her partner Pierre-Francois Villanoba, gave her all the support she needed, and she seemed grateful—but he didn't to my mind meet her in imaginativeness.

Her greatest moment was that one at the very end, when his dying hand slips from hers and her drugged sleep comes to an end. As consciousness flooded back into her body her fingers began to move, and it seemed the music poured into her like the life force. Van Patten is a big girl, and the first big breath she took on awakening had the force and pace and scale of the sun coming up. From then on, every thought that went through her was intelligible.  You could see her taste the poison on Romeo's lips before she ran to look for the bottle, and when it was empty, the complex look on her face as she chid him for leaving none for her was a study in wry comedy. The power of her imagination is on a par with that of the character she's playing, and she went to join Romeo with an intention that made you feel, as it ought to, that they'd gotten away with something.

A great end to the season.

Photo:  Elizabeth Loscavio and Yuri Possokhov in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet (© 1995 Lloyd Englert)

Volume 3, No. 18
May 9, 2005

Revised May 10, 2005
copyright ©2005 Paul Parish



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last updated on May 1, 2005