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American Ballet Theatre - 'Romeo and Juliet'

Two Juliets and a Valedictory

by Jerry Hochman

July 3, 2004 matinee and evening -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

American Ballet Theatre ended its Met season with two final performances of "Romeo and Juliet." The matinee performance featured ABT's latest sweetheart, Xiomara Reyes, while the evening's Juliet was Irina Dvorovenko, one of its veteran stars. Both performances were technically stunning, and at times even riveting. Given the level of expertise that was on display, the fact that I found both portrayals somewhat less than perfect is not so much a criticism as a simple observation. Between the two, Reyes's performance was more interesting, if less accomplished. The evening's performance was also memorable for the valedictory of Ethan Brown, who was retiring after some 23 years with ABT.

Reyes joined ABT in 2001 and promptly became an audience favorite because of her obvious talent and her sweet-as-sugar stage persona (though I suspect there's a steel core underneath the saccharin). She was quickly promoted to principal in 2003. I don't know how many times she's done Juliet (this performance was her only one of this Met season), but her Juliet was very much a work in progress, as it should be.

MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" is justifiably renowned, of course, for its choreography, which tells the story all by itself, and for the intricate tapestry of medieval life that it puts on display. But it is also an extraordinary vehicle for dramatization. When the acting matches the dancing, the fireworks (it was the 4th of July weekend, after all) can leave the audience enthralled and in tears -- often at the same time. When the acting doesn't quite equal the caliber of the dancing, something is missing.

Reyes's performance was wonderful. She gave MacMillan's steps a gentle fluidity that matched the mood to perfection; there was nothing that she didn't do right. And she did not have to act Juliet -- she was Juliet. But there are little things -- no, they are big things -- that can only come with time. While Reyes was very much the sweet child, then the infatuated girl, then the willful adolescent, then the tragic victim of fate, the more subtle indicia of accomplishment were not yet there. When, in Act I Scene 2, the nurse (portrayed by Susan Jones with her usual skill, grace, and humor) introduces Juliet to her changing body, Juliet's face is supposed to register something -- recognition, or astonishment, or whatever. The image is only a split second long, but it is an integral part of the portrayal. But Reyes's face didn't change at all; she just lifted her head up, and stared into space.

More significantly, though, in Act III Scene 1, when MacMillan famously has Juliet sit at the edge of her bed, relatively motionless, trying to decide what she can do to get out of the predicament she's in, Juliet can't just sit there waiting for her next cue. The audience has to see her think, and it has to see the light bulb turn on in her head when she realizes that Friar Laurence might be able to help. I can't begin to say how to do it; I only know that the best Juliets I've seen not only know that they're supposed to do it, they can convey the entire thought process to the audience. Reyes can't do this yet.

But there's reason to expect that, given time, she will. The broader acting requirements were ably satisfied, her "pas de deux" with the vial of potion was accomplished (though she came perilously close to turning it into a mad scene), and her crypt scene was memorable. Juliet's scream of horror when she realizes Romeo is dead always sends shivers up and down my spine. But Reyes's was different. She stood (or knelt -- I can't recall) next to Romeo's body, and let go a blood-curdling wail that could be heard all the way to Verona -- or at least to Havana. I'll look forward to future performances, to watch her fill in the blanks.

Where Reyes's performance was a work in progress, Dvorovenko's has reached the point where it cannot evolve further. She's as good as she's going to get, which is very good indeed.

Dvorovenko did everything the role demanded, and her familiarity with the choreography and the role enabled her to achieve a higher level of excellence in all respects. Her extensions were longer; her leaps were more daring; and her ecstasy was more, well, ecstatic. The fact that she was partnered by Maxim Beloserkovsky, her husband, didn't hurt. His partnering is practically effortless, and the two of them provide a seamless unity. And all the subtleties that make a performance stellar were there. It was a great performance, for which the audience was appropriately appreciative. She danced and acted the young, innocent Juliet -- perfectly. But to me, at least in the first two acts, there was something missing. .It was like she'd done it all before; she was an experienced Juliet -- the ballerina as Juliet, not Juliet. It took a while to warm up to her. But her Act III was memorable, and in the end she'd won me over.

But "Romeo and Juliet" is not just Juliet. In the matinee, Ethan Stiefel, even more than at Wednesday's performance, was a dashing, smitten Romeo. And his bravura solos were both masterfully executed and sufficiently subtle so as not to distract from the love story. Beloserkovsky also was technically accomplished, but was a more subdued and more experienced Romeo than Stiefel. Jesus Pastor, the evening's Mercutio, didn't have the exuberance or accomplishment of Herman Cornejo in the afternoon's performance, and was frequently off in his timing. Kirk Peterson was absolutely masterful as both Escalus and Friar Laurence in the evening performance; commanding and dominating in the former, intelligent and gentle in the latter.

Carlos Molina was surprisingly warm as the evening's Paris, a striking contrast to his Tybalt in the afternoon. And to show once again that there are no small parts, Ilona McHugh, in the evening's performance, completely altered the usual portrayal of Rosalind. Hers had a personality; a nice personality -- aristocratic but not haughty, friendly rather than aloof. It was a surprising, and welcome, change. Luciana Paris's harlot led the afternoon trio, but, in the evening performance, Sasha Dmochowski, with exuberance falling just short of being over-the-top, was most effective. Of those I could identify, Sarah Lane stood out as one of Juliet's friends in the evening performance. And, again in the same performance, Veronika Part as Lady Capulet made you believe there really was something going on between her and Tybalt.

Which brings me to the evening's Tybalt, Ethan Brown. To say that the audience celebrated Brown and his career, which it -- and the entire ABT family -- did tumultuously and joyously during the evening's curtain calls, is to miss the point of why everybody wanted to honor the career of one who was predominantly a character dancer. For me, it is because Brown is one of us. I always wondered what it would be like to be a Baryshnikov, or a Bujones, or a Stiefel, or countless other danseur nobles or hyper-energized Pucks who could do impossible things. But I never for a moment thought that I ever could.

But Brown was there, seemingly every night, doing -- had the fates been a bit different -- what I might have been able to do. His performances were always extraordinarily human, not superhuman. Maybe he just couldn't do the superhuman (I recall an early performance where he had a very tough time lifting a promising corps dancer. Maybe it was then that he decided to focus on being a character actor/dancer). In any event, what he did, he did very well. And for someone who's gone to ballet performances for a long time, there was a comfort in knowing that, after all these years, he was still there. He'll be missed.

Brown was as gracious and warm-hearted during the extensive curtain calls as one would have expected him to be. And it was good to see his sister, Leslie Browne, who knows a thing or two about Juliet, crossing the Met stage again to be the first to present him with a bouquet (one of dozens he would eventually be given). And a final acknowledgement to Dvorovenko and Beloserkovsky, who selflessly and graciously shared the final curtain calls.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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