Helgi Tomasson’s dramatically choreographed balletic version of Romeo and Juliet is far more tragic than Shakespeare’s play, but it translates rich in beauty. The San Francisco Ballet has the resources to portray Tomasson’s vision, captured by grand scale set designs, picture perfect costumes, dramatic lighting, and a critically acclaimed company orchestra whose separate parts are equally as great as its whole. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, guided by Martin West, is heroically apt at delivering all the emotion, darkness, beauty and angst of Sergei Prokofiev’s star-crossed lovers. Tomasson’s R&J premiered at the SF Ballet in 1994 and now returns to San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House to round out the Ballet’s 2010 season. With two lengthy intermissions, time flies in this two and a half hour production, only adding to the sense of urgency in this tragic love story, in which Romeo and Juliet meet, love and die in a matter of days.
This ballet is drama-heavy with more than strong echoes of Shakespeare’s play. Jens Jacob Worsaae’s lovely and sometimes referential costume design proves helpful when trying to gauge who’s who during the beginning and ensemble pieces. Colors are rich and bold, layered with flowing hues. Worsaae’s set design is awe-inspiring, riding the waves of movement on the stage. Scene changes are exciting yet smooth and greatly signified by the moving and multi-level set design, including stone facades, arches and gilded pillars, staircases and frescos, and a walkway towering across the stage right to left. Lighting is also dramatic and remarkable. Thomas R. Skelton combines the subtle and the bold in spots that enlighten Juliet’s gorgeous distress as she (Sarah Van Patten) battles with herself in the moments before drinking a sleeping potion. And like a foreboding yet mesmerizing sunset, the backdrop transforms through all the colors of love’s wound to the finality of deep and violent red. Tybalt and Mercutio lie dead: Romeo (Pierre-François Vilanoba) distraught and banishèd.
Martino Pistone’s fight direction is a quandary. It’s well choreographed, and Tybalt’s (Damian Smith) violent death is brutally memorable, partly because of the drama Smith brings to the scene, but the swordplay lacks the raw and real elements captured throughout the rest of the production.
Vilanoba and Van Patten are youthful and raw and exactly what you want Romeo and Juliet to be. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, Romeo’s first “love,” Rosalind, here coyly portrayed by Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun, is physically present in the first few scenes, so we get to see Romeo’s fickle heart as his eyes wander to Juliet. One can’t help but notice the marked difference between the way Juliet interacts with her Romeo versus Paris (Quinn Wharton) and her parents (Capulet and his Lady portrayed by Val Caniparoli and Elana Altman). Again, with Romeo and Juliet think raw, uninhibited, desperate and without the all the courtly rules and regulations enforced elsewhere. Think love without any of the baggage of experience.
Drama aside, there are bright spotlights of dance throughout. Before entering the Capulet’s masquerade, Romeo, Mercutio (Pascal Molat), and Benvolio (Hansuke Yamamoto) engage in a boisterous pas de trios with viable Russian influences, during which either Yamamoto is a step behind or Vilanoba and Molat a step beyond. But the dance is an opportunity to introduce these principal males and showcase Molat’s talent and his character’s dynamic edge. Your eyes will follow Molat, whether he’s dancing with his own lusty interests (Harlots portrayed by Courtney Elizabeth and Pauli Magierek), taunting the fiery Tybalt, or breaking our hearts in his too soon death scene, plaguing both houses before falling up the staircase.
Three acrobats (Dores Andre, Benjamin Stewart, Matthew Stewart) bring even more life to the already lively square, and harlots Elizabeth and Magierek offer dichotomy with their sex-driven moves and flying skirts, bringing airs of West Side to this Story.
But it’s Romeo and Juliet who grip our senses. Vilanoba and Van Patten are like magnets at first sight. They poetically speak and kiss their first sonneted words in dance. Their pas de deux in the garden/balcony scene is as exciting as springtime— beautifully rash and sudden—with added vigor from Vilanoba. Van Patten brings her all to their “morning after” pas de deux, the dance filled with angst, desperation and passion. But it’s when she battles with herself in the moments before drinking the sleeping potion given her by the Friar (Ricardo Bustamante) that Van Patten clinches the title of unforgettable. Like an epiphany, during which all the senses come together like a cyclone, Van Patten delivers a frighteningly stunning performance. And their final moments in the tomb are heartbreaking. Romeo tries and fails to make his lifeless Juliet engage in one more dance, and we gasp when Juliet comes back to life a split second before her Romeo vanishes into the next.
But tragedy is multiplied on this stage. In Shakespeare’s play, we have a prologue “Two households, both alike in dignity…” and we have reconciliation in the end as Capulet and Montague join hands. Shakespeare’s play is the retelling of a tragedy. We’re prepared because of the prologue, and we’re at least somewhat pacified in the end to know the civil war between the two houses has come to an end. This is not the case on Tomasson’s stage. We begin in real time, with the Friar the first in focus as the square comes to life with townspeople. It’s as though we’re living in our own Flash Forward—present, yet with the knowledge of what’s to come, and there’s not a thing we can do about it. And in the end there is no reconciliation of the families. Sure, we may impose our own hands considering how well we know the play, but Tomasson’s ballet ends in death. Tomasson’s ballet is a gorgeous tragedy.
Romeo and Juliet runs May 1 - 9, 2010 at the War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102. Information can be found at http://sfballet.org.