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Sweet Sorrows

American Ballet Theatre -- 'Romeo and Juliet'

by Jerry Hochman

July 5, 7 mat, 7 eve, 10 eve, 2010 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York

While Shakespeare and Prokofiev have a little something to do with it, it is a tribute to Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography for “Romeo and Juliet” that I cannot recall seeing any portrayal of MacMillan’s Juliet that was less than stellar. You do the steps competently, you show the emotion sufficiently, you get a standing ovation. Guaranteed.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Together with doing the steps and showing the emotion, there are variables that make each Juliet different, and that make some performances grab a viewer, or at least this viewer, more than others.

And so it was with the five performances of MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” (including the July 10 matinee performance of Juliet by Natalia Osipova, which I discuss in a separate review) that I was privileged to see this past week, and that closed out American Ballet Theatre’s current season at the Met: Julie Kent’s Juliet on July 5, Hee Seo’s on the July 7 matinee, Xiomara Reyes’s on the July 7 evening performance, and Diana Vishneva’s Juliet on closing night. In totally different ways, each of the performances was magnificent. Ms. Kent displayed a passion that I had not seen in her dancing before. Ms. Reyes corrected every flaw that I had noticed when I saw her dance Juliet previously. Ms.Vishneva was as incomparable in this role as she is in every other performance she gives. And as for Ms. Seo, she simply demonstrated a level of competence and accomplishment that I would have found surprising in a ballerina who had been dancing the role for years. Perhaps because it was so unexpected, Ms. Seo’s performance, for this viewer, was the most emotionally devastating of all of them.

MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” is not just about Juliet. There cannot be a successfully portrayed Juliet without a Romeo, or a successful production without the excellent work of other members of the cast. But Juliet is the physical and emotional soul of this production, as she should be, and the focus of any review must be on her portrayal. Consequently, I will address the contributions of other cast members less extensively, and necessarily less adequately, than their performances merit.

With respect to Ms. Kent, initially I have a confession – actually two confessions. First: I have had considerable difficulty watching Julie Kent dance of late because I can’t get ‘into’ her performances, and rarely feel that she’s trying to get into my emotional head. For me, she’s just too austere; too emotionally flat. She does the steps, does them well, but there’s no connection. Second: I was disappointed that she was given Juliet (and the first performance of the season, no less). I’m well aware of purportedly legendary Juliets danced by Ulanova and by Margot Fonteyn, among others, well past the point where they could pass for a teenage girl, but I have difficulty suspending my disbelief (otherwise, I guess, I’d have become an operaholic instead of a balletomaniac). And I’m equally aware of dancers who somehow manage to look – as well as act – the part, no matter how much experience they’ve had (e.g., Alessandra Ferri). But for this season, and considering the dearth of lead roles given to soloists, I thought the opportunity to dance Juliet should have been given to another.

Well, credit where it’s due. I was wrong. At the July 5 performance, Julie Kent delivered. It was not a flawless performance, and I still would have preferred a Juliet who, to me, looked more like a Juliet. But from the balcony scene at the end of Act I on, and ably abetted by Marcelo Gomes, Ms. Kent danced like a Juliet.

What made Ms. Kent’s performance was her passion – not just her passion for Romeo, which is both a given and an essential, but her passion for being passionate, for expanding MacMillan's already emotion-driven choreography to an even more feverish level. She danced with abandon, to the point where it appeared that she was pushing the choreography rather than having the choreography push her.

But her portrayal was also surprisingly limited. When she was not passionate, unfortunately, she was often blank. In her opening scenes in Act I, she was working too hard at being a teenage girl, and, unless you watched the performance from a distance, it didn't work. When her nurse (ably portrayed, as usual, by Susan Jones) tells her she's getting to be too mature to play with dolls, Ms. Kent simply stares into space. No expression; no emotion. At the ball, before passion takes over, Ms. Kent failed to convey Juliet’s youth – her movement looked forced and artificial to me, and she seemed to have difficulty getting off the ground. Although she looked lighter than air (Ms. Kent looks almost painfully thin), she didn’t move that way. And she gave a curious interpretation of MacMillan’s edge-of-the-bed scene. Her Juliet clearly displayed her thought process, but what she seemed to be communicating was that she had thought of someone she could talk to about her problem, not someone who could solve her problem. So when Ms. Kent’s Juliet stood up, it seemed as if nothing had changed – there was no sense of relief.

However, once MacMillan’s passionate choreography kicked in, so did Ms. Kent. She danced as if she’d been struck by, and energized by, lightning, and I’m certain that her exaggerated passion could be felt to the top of the house. In a way, it was the kinetic equivalent of Ethel Merman belting a tune into the cheap seats: As Ms. Merman didn’t need a microphone to amplify her voice, Ms. Kent’s passionate movement required no binoculars to register in every nook and cranny of the Met. It was a gutsy, edgy performance.

I will not dwell long on Ms. Reyes’s Juliet, because it was a Juliet on the highest of levels in all respects, and there is simply little beyond that to say.

When I last saw Ms. Reyes dance Juliet, she was still relatively new to the role and to ABT, and I observed that she had difficulty – not surprisingly – with the finer points of Juliet’s acting. In the years since then, Ms. Reyes has addressed these flaws of inexperience, and has overcome them. The moment of her recognition of pending maturity in Scene 2 of Act I was shown with appropriate apprehensiveness. Her thought process during the edge-of-the-bed scene was conveyed clearly. And her movement was infused with the passionate spirit that the production requires.

Ms. Reyes’s Romeo was Herman Cornejo. For this role, Mr. Cornejo transformed himself from a self-absorbed solo practitioner to an able and helpful partner – and he acted the part admirably. Ms. Reyes and Mr. Cornejo fit together, and appear to work together, very well. Also noteworthy in this performance were Luciana Paris’s Rosaline (who responded to Romeo’s attention with playful appreciation rather than the usual stoic toleration), and the harlots danced by Anne Milewski, Kristi Boone, and particularly Misty Copeland. Alexei Agoudine did double duty as Escalus and Friar Laurence, and acquitted himself well in each role.

As I’ve previously observed, there is no ballerina presently performing – at least none that I’ve seen – who conveys the extraordinary dramatic range, intensity, intelligence, competence, clarity, and charisma of Diana Vishneva. Every performance she gives is a performance of a lifetime – and New York balletgoers, who fill the Met to its edges to see her dance – know it.

Ms. Vishneva’s closing night Juliet was extraordinary – as it usually is. I noted some changes from her performance last year (her portrayals never seem static – if you have the opportunity to see her dance the same roles frequently enough, you see the tinkering she does from one performance to another to try to improve). I think the changes she made in her Juliet this time miss the mark (e.g., she overplayed her transfixed response to Romeo’s kiss to the point that some audience members giggled, and she exaggerated her arm movements to display emotion much more than she needed to, making her portrayal look more out-of-control than frenzied), but these changes did not diminish the impact of her performance in the least.

For example, Ms. Vishneva executed MacMillan’s balcony scene with such extraordinary amplification of the choreography and emotional depth that a written review can never be sufficiently adequate. But a description of the Met audience's response to it may provide a hint of the quality of Ms. Vishneva's performance (as well as that of her Romeo, Marcelo Gomes), and of the impact it had.

MacMillan's balcony scene provides as close a representation to the thrill of being in love, especially of being in love for the first time, that I can recall seeing anywhere. And this representation is so beautifully crafted that one would have to be made of stone not to be kinetically transported – and not only to the stage with the dancers, but to the recreated memory of the time when that particular viewer had experienced (or imagined) such overwhelming emotional force. It is not simply a voyeuristic or even vicarious experience; for a few moments, thanks to MacMillan's emotionally explosive choreography, it is a real adrenaline rush.

While the scene unfolds, the audience is too involved to move, and the only sound heard is an occasional gasp of wonder at the intensity of the emotional display. But at its conclusion, it is not only the joy of having witnessed a great performance that prompts the resulting ovation; it is each viewer's individual (and the audience’s collective) emotional release. It happens every time. [Even on film – as I recall, the audience in the theater where I first watched “The Turning Point” broke into applause as the ‘balcony scene’ performed by Leslie Browne and Mikhail Baryshnikov ended.] This volcanic release doesn’t usually begin until the scene is about to end – as Juliet and Romeo strain to reach one another from her position on the balcony to his on the stage below. But for Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Gomes, the audience's collective release could not be restrained. The thunderous ovation began while Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Gomes were still on the stage floor wrapped in each others’ arms, and it overwhelmed the orchestra to the point where it was impossible to hear any music as Ms. Vishneva raced back up the steps to her balcony. It was an extraordinary experience to witness from the audience, and must have been equally extraordinary for Ms.Vishneva and Mr. Gomes to hear from the stage. And it is an experience that this viewer joined in, and will not soon forget.

The evening’s Mercutio was Craig Salstein (who had also performed the role at the July 7 matinee performance). Mr. Salstein succeeded in doing what I thought no one could do – which was to make me believe that another dancer could portray Mercutio with as much flourish as Mr. Cornejo (who danced the role at Ms. Kent’s performance). Although he consistently seemed to be a heartbeat ahead of the music, Mr. Salstein’s portrayal was great fun to watch. And Freddie Franklin’s Friar Laurence was performed with his usual humanity and grace (although it would be a welcome change if Mr. Franklin actually opened Juliet’s letter to Romeo before pretending to read it).

From Hee Seo’s first appearance at the Met with ABT, it was readily apparent that she was a particularly capable and engaging dancer. Last season, in reviewing her “La Sylphide,” I described her performance as ‘deliciously appealing,’ but noted that nuance and subtlety would develop over time. I missed her debut as Juliet last year – but if her performance in the role at that time required any further development, it does not any longer. She gave a remarkable performance.

Ms. Seo’s Juliet was different. Of course the steps and emotional development were the same, and of course Juliet is supposed to be an unusually willful young girl. But Ms. Seo gave Juliet's character a visually-conveyed determination that to this viewer was not only unlike the usual portrayal, but better. In her opening scene, Ms. Seo’s Juliet wasn’t just surprised or apprehensive about her developing body – her Juliet relished the fact that she was maturing, and appeared to recognize, without regret, that she shouldn't be playing with dolls anymore. Ms. Seo's Juliet knew that she had more exciting things to look forward to.

And this emphasis on Juliet's willfulness and determination continued throughout the performance. Ms. Seo’s Juliet was not a creature of fate – she created her fate. For example, her edge-of-the-bed scene in Act III was thrillingly executed. Although she bowed her head a bit while sitting on the bed (as opposed to looking straight ahead throughout the scene), she resumed looking forward with sufficient time remaining in the scene to allow the developing thought that Friar Laurence could get her out of her dilemma to be fully and clearly expressed in her eyes alone. And after her initial unwillingness to take the potion that Friar Laurence offers her, Ms. Seo’s Juliet, after prayer and thought, doesn’t just reluctantly agree to take the potion – she demands that Friar Laurence give the vial back to her.

But Ms. Seo’s Juliet was not just an unusually strong-willed girl – she was also lovely to watch. Her Juliet wasn’t swept up in an emotional tsunami; she was swept away by more gentle ocean waves. Hers was a delightfully romantic and lyrical Juliet. And I admit that her performance grabbed my heart from the first minute she was on stage – in part because she executed it so well, in part because I did not expect her to be as good as she was, and in part because she was the most natural of Juliets.

Cory Stearns was Ms. Seo’s ardent and attentive Romeo. As I’ve observed previously, Mr. Stearns is not yet a finished product – at times he comes across like a puppy or a boy scout. But there are some roles for which he seems perfectly suited temperamentally, and Romeo is one of them. He and Ms. Seo work together, and play off each other emotionally, very well.

All of the Tybalts (Gennadi Saveliev, Sascha Radetsky, Patrick Ogle, and Isaac Stappas) executed their roles admirably. Mr. Radetsky and Mr. Ogle’s characterizations came across as more ‘demented’ Tybalts; Mr. Stappas was more evil, and consequently, to me, more interesting to watch. Mr. Saveliev, who I’ve seen perform Tybalt on many occasions, gave his usual wonderfully nasty portrayal. Alexandre Hammoudi’s Paris was promising – although he was almost too nice a guy. Stella Abrera’s turn as one of the harlots was exaggerated perfectly, while Kristi Boone's lower-volume Lady Capulet came as a welcome relief from other high-pitched portrayals. And Vitali Krauchenka’s Lord Capulet was a pleasant surprise, if only because his portrayal appeared as fully developed as Victor Barbee’s, who has owned the role for many years (and who also appears to rule the stage – at one point, at the July 5 performance, I caught him giving stage directions to a few of Juliet’s friends).

And a nod to the corps. In this production, the townspeople are not simply window dressing. If one looks away from the main action to see what else is happening on stage, one finds performers actively engaged in supporting roles that few audience members get to see, but that are performed with as much professional integrity as are the roles performed by the leads and featured soloists. For example, at the June 5 performance, I observed Renata Pavam as she caught and fought over and successfully held onto the bouquet tossed by the ‘Mandolin Dance’ bride. It was a wonderful little vignette, and one that each of ABT's corps dancers does as a matter of routine by being in character every moment he or she is on stage.

Finally, as these were ABT’s last performances in New York for some time, a concluding word must be said about the state of the company as a whole. This viewer has frequently complained about the lack of performing opportunities in principal roles for soloists and corps dancers. With rare exception, the lead roles are danced by principals or guest artists – and I believe that somehow this deficiency needs to be remedied if ABT is to be more than the ballet equivalent of the New York Yankees. [On the other hand, I’m also the first to complain about ABT not providing sufficient opportunity for New York audiences to see international stars such as Alina Cojocaru more frequently.] But that having been said, it is also true that I know of no company that is able to present eight different Juliets in six consecutive days of performances, each of whom gives a luminous and exhilarating portrayal, fully meriting the ovations she receives.

Although I missed the Juliets danced by Gillian Murphy, Irina Dvorovenko, and Paloma Herrera this season, I’ve seen Ms. Murphy and Ms. Dvorovenko in the role previously, and know the great performances they give. I’ll catch up with Ms. Herrera’s Juliet down the road, but I don’t doubt that her Juliet is as compelling as the others. ABT is home to an astonishing agglomeration of dancer/actors and actresses, and being able to witness night after night of outstanding performances to sold out houses is both a thrill and a privilege.

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