"Romeo and Juliet "
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 22 , 2007

by Tom Phillips
copyright © 2007 by Tom Phillips               

“Romeo and Juliet always makes me sad,” said the lady seated behind me at the Metropolitan Opera House to her companion, “because it’s so unnecessary.” That, in a nutshell, is why “Romeo and Juliet” is not a real tragedy, and while always one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, not one of his greatest plays. Paradoxically, it’s also why “Romeo and Juliet” is the only Shakespeare tragedy that makes a great ballet. Ballet dancers don’t have the vocabulary to portray a complex hero doomed by some tragic flaw. “Othello” makes a tedious, tendentious ballet. “Hamlet” would be a quagmire, “MacBeth” a nightmare. But “Romeo and Juliet” is not about tragic heroes doomed by flaws in their character, but about beautiful young people doomed by the flaws of their elders. And so it is the perfect story for artists whose craft is not primarily one of self-expression, but rather a beautiful discipline imposed by others, often heedless of the consequences.

The theory above was developed mostly by watching Julie Kent dance Juliet. In this role she is shaken again and again by forces beyond her will or comprehension, from puberty, through sexual attraction, passion, repulsion, coercion, despair and finally self-destruction. Her body is the ideal vehicle for all this, not so much moving as appearing to be moved. It’s an invisible force that seems to ripple through her wrists, hands and fingers in the thrill of a ballroom romance. And it is her partner who literally sweeps her off her feet in the balcony scene, flinging her around and above him until she freezes upside down in ecstasy. Kent captures every change in this brief, catastrophic episode of womanhood, from giggles at the ball to the paroxysm of suicide. It’s sad because it’s not her doing!

Her partner, Angel Corella, is a great dancer but not a great Romeo. He swept Juliet off her feet but for the most part stayed within himself, acting rather than being acted upon. The one exception was the swordfight with Tybalt, when he seemed consumed by the kind of momentary rage that turns teenage boys into killers.

Sascha Radetsky as Tybalt was closest to a real tragic character, though his fatal flaw appeared to be no more than a chip on the shoulder. Still, he played it with a brooding nastiness, and died like a mad Russian, resigned to his fate even as he struggled against it.

Stella Abrera staged a dramatic tour de force as Lady Capulet, Juliet's mother. At the end of Act Two she mesmerized the crowds, on both sides of the footlights, with spasms of grief and rage over her nephew’s corpse. And her compassion shone through her helplessness in the painful scene where Lord Capulet forces Juliet to agree to marry Paris. Gennady Saveliev made a fine fop of Paris, and Carlos Lopez the usual dashing delinquent of Mercutio.

The best thing about this production is its grand scale, with a cast of about eighty dancers plus more supers, and sets tall, deep and wide enough to fill the great stage of the Met. Act Two opens in a marketplace teeming with harlots, hawkers, hangers-on, wide-eyed children, a crippled beggar and a cardinal under a moving canopy. Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography, originally for the Royal Ballet, captures all the Renaissance vitality and animal spirits of Shakespeare’s Italianate world. The swordfights, exquisitely timed with every clash on the beat of Prokofiev’s battle music, sweep back and forth across the ample space before spilling up and down the staircase. And the cameos are performed lovingly by masters of the art: Susan Jones played the nurse with comic bounce that never obscured her anxious devotion to Juliet, while as Friar Laurence, the ageless Frederic Franklin, cast a beneficent spell upon the lovers, somehow all the more touching for its failure to save them.

Volume 5, No. 25
June 25, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Tom Phillips

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