writers on dancing


A Glitter Dust Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet
Universal Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
July 31, 2004

By Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published August 2, 2004

There may be as many versions of “Romeo and Juliet” as there are ballet companies. In New York, we’ve seen a lot of them, though for the past decade the most-performed here has been Kenneth MacMillan’s. I've not seen a perfect production yet, but unfortunately I don’t think Oleg Vinogradov’s, danced here by Universal Ballet, would come near the top of anyone’s list.

Things start off auspiciously enough with a sumptuous front curtain of heraldry designed by Simon Pastukh. The costumes are by Galina Solovieva and everything’s lavish in a Vegas way. The main set is a handsome study of a Renaissance square set in perspective. Lovely and Italian, but the massive (and French) stained glass rose windows of Friar Laurence’s church suggest that he’s a minor priest at Chartres, a healthy commute from Verona. The tone of the production is set when we see Death (yes, Death is unfortunately a character) peeking out at us at the close of the opening tableau and we quickly notice the sparkles. Alas, Glitter Death wears a skull encrusted with rhinestones.

The Vinogradov production was originally staged in 1965 in Novosibirsk. Notes in the program are contradictory as to whether this version is a restaging or a new staging based on that one. For the record, Vingradov’s notes say he did not alter the choreography. His own notes are illuminating; he talks about the landmark Lavrovsky/Radlov production of 1940 on which most successful versions are based, including Cranko’s and MacMillan’s. The debate in Soviet circles was that the 1940 production was too spare and relied too much on mime rather than dance. Vinogradov’s production was made on the premise of that argument, but watching the production becomes the best argument against it. From Vinogradov’s apologetic commentary and explanations, it seems he knows that too.

Even more characters have been pared out (the Nurse, Benvolio). All character development, such as it is, is through dance. This means that Juliet’s first scene, usually in her bedchamber with her nurse, is now a brisk allegro dance with four friends during which we learn absolutely nothing about her except that she can negotiate a phrase with too many steps for the music. The whole ballet is like this. The men can’t just fight with swords, they have to dance while they fight, and it has to look more like a dance than a fight. So, they do a lot of high kicks. I couldn’t help thinking of Yvonne Craig playing Batgirl every time Romeo tried to grand battement Tybalt in the face. Even Lord Capulet gets in the act; in the third act scene in Juliet’s bedroom he kicks her repeatedly. It’s very upsetting.

The flawed production makes it very difficult for the company to put their best foot forward. I’ve seen Universal Ballet twice before and it's never looked more regional. Seh-Yun Kim as Juliet was an exception. She’s miscast (she’s much too sunny a Juliet), but she’s technically sound with beautiful lines and proportions. She looks as though she’d be lovely in the right material. Her Romeo, Andriy Gura, is tall, lean with excellent proportions, young and promising, but too physically weak for a role that calls for Soviet beast-of-burden partnering (put girl on your back in arabesque, squat over and then liiiiiiiiiiift your leg.)

If there was anything interesting about the production it’s that, as Vinogradov’s notes imply, it gives us a glimpse into Soviet choreographic philosophy of the time. Vinogradov overpacked semi-modern vocabulary looks suspiciously, down to the lack of phrasing, like Eifman’s. Eifman began his career in Saint Petersburg a few years after this ballet was made. Perhaps from it, when can extrapolate to the creative milieu that gave rise to the style.

Originally published:
Volume 2, No. 29
August 2, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Leigh Witchel


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