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American Ballet Theatre

'Romeo and Juliet'

by Jerry Hochman

June 10, 11, 12(m) and 14, 2013 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

Either Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography is a guarantee, or I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate over the years, but I’ve never seen a poor presentation of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – and with respect to the lead roles, the performances, overall, have been either wonderful or shattering or both.

I’ve written previously, and at length, about MacMillan’s choreographic tapestry, and his exploitation (in a good way) of Shakespeare’s tragedy and Prokofiev’s score to propel the story toward its inevitable conclusion, and in the process to provide the audience with an emotional roller coaster ride of vicarious experiences. In the process, MacMillan created dances and characters that linger in the memory long after the ballet ends – the simplicity of a town coming to life in the morning; the pageantry of the Capulet ball, the hysteria of Lady Capulet, the frivolity and daring of Mercutio, and of course the intensity of the balcony, bed and bier pas de deux for Juliet and Romeo.

Nevertheless, and although the choreography builds-in a successful performance, it takes the dancers to execute the choreography and convert steps into characters. Accordingly, and since I've already examined the choreography in depth, this review will focus on the performances I saw this past week, as well as ABT’s overall presentation of the ballet, rather than the choreography and stagecraft.

Initially, however, I must note the absence of the late Frederic Franklin from his usual role as Friar Laurence. His performances always added a natural humanity to the priest’s role (even if he frequently forgot to fully open the letter from Juliet to Romeo that he was presumably reading), and his presence brought a touch of class to any of the performances in which he appeared. Almost as regrettable as his passing, however, was ABT’s shameful failure to acknowledge him. His name wasn’t mentioned during ABT’s Opening Night Gala, and this callousness extended to the opening performance of this season’s Romeo and Juliet, and to each of the three other performances I saw. At the very least, even if he was not acknowledged from the stage, the full week of Romeo and Juliet should have been dedicated to his memory and so reflected in the program. [I note that the ABT Calendar now indicates that Thursday’s performances was ‘Dedicated to the memory of Frederic Franklin’, but it is a recent addition (this ‘dedication’ wasn’t in the Calendar when I last checked), and in any event, the thought was too little, too limited, and too late.]

The opening performance in the eight performance series featured Diana Vishneva as Juliet, Marcelo Gomes as Romeo, Craig Salstein as Mercutio, Daniil Simkin as Benvolio, Stella Abrera as Lady Capulet, Sascha Radetsky as Tybalt, and Luciana Paris as the ‘lead’ Harlot. Thereafter, for the Tuesday, Wednesday matinee, and Friday performances, Juliet was danced respectively by Polina Semionova, Hee Seo, and Natalia Osipova; David Hallberg (Tuesday and Friday) and Roberto Bolle (Wednesday) were the other Romeos; Mercutio was danced by Jared Matthews (Tuesday and Friday) and Joseph Phillips (Wednesday); Benvolio by Joseph Gorak (Tuesday and Friday) and Blaine Hoven (Wednesday); Lady Capulet was portrayed by Kristi Boone (Tuesday) and Nicola Curry (Wednesday and Friday); the other Tybalts were Patrick Ogle (Tuesday and Friday) and Roman Zhurban (Wednesday); and the other ‘lead’ Harlots were Misty Copeland, Devon Teuscher, and Isabella Boylston at the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday performances, respectively.

While I’ll describe certain of the performances in greater detail below, in summary: Each of the four Juliets was magnificent, and selecting one as ‘better’ than another is as impossible as it is unwise. But wisdom isn’t my strong suit, and I place a premium on being able to watch a dancer evolve. With that prejudice acknowledged, to this viewer Ms. Seo was not just extraordinarily good (they all were), hers was a Juliet to cherish. The Romeos were each superlative as well, but it was Mr. Hallberg’s series of performances that was most memorable to me. Mr. Matthews is having a break-out season, despite the absence of lead roles, and his Mercutio was not only the finest of the three I saw, it was among the finest I’ve seen at any time. Mr. Zhurban was the most animated of the three Tybalts – though as I’ll explain below there appears to have been a concerted effort to defang the role. The three Lady Capulets were very different from each other: Ms. Abrera being the most animated and appropriately melodramatic, Ms. Curry (whom I had not previously seen in the role) more restrained (although, for the role of Lady Capulet, that description is relative), and Ms. Boone somewhat in between. All were excellent. And of the lead Harlots, Ms. Paris has become not only a competent one (which is not meant to be as salacious as it sounds), but one of the best I’ve seen over many years (comparable to Elaine Kudo). But Ms. Copeland added exceptional flair beyond the choreography to her interpretation of the role, and Ms. Teuscher's portrayal was a pleasant surprise.

Ms. Vishneva’s Juliet is a well-known quantity, and her portrayal on Monday was consistent with her previous superlative performances. And while she may no longer be a teenage girl, Ms. Vishneva is one of those rare seasoned performers who is ageless: she can transform herself into any character, regardless of the character's age, and requires no suspension of disbelief.

I’ve seen Ms. Vishneva dance Juliet many times, and although she never performs the role (or any other role) exactly the same way twice, each performance is brilliant. Her entire body – not just her arms and legs – is liquid and expressive (while not overly so), and for me her ‘edge-of-the-bed’ mini-scene has the least overt activity and yet remains the most glorious of portrayals. And she continues to find ways to improve – not that she has to. For example, she changed her ‘Scream’ this year (which was one of my minor criticisms of her previous performance as Juliet), reducing the excessive flailing of her arms and compressing the physical manifestation of the terror her Juliet felt into a more confined space. It was fabulous.

Mr. Gomes’s Romeo wasn’t quite up to his typical high standard. In particular, he lacked his usual ballon (which may be a product of his recent injury). Regardless, less than optimal for Mr. Gomes is still extraordinary, his acting was memorable throughout, and he and Ms. Vishneva provided a particularly galvanizing Act III. As Mercutio, Mr. Salstein was the spark plug he always is, but he, too, appeared not up to his usual high standard. On the other hand, Mr. Simkin showed a surprising comfort level with the ‘second banana’ role of Benvolio, and his was a highly accomplished portrayal. The role of Lady Capulet requires the dancer to walk a tightrope between being believably melodramatic and overly hysterical. Ms. Abrera skirted the line, and I found her performance to be compellingly and extraordinarily animated without overdoing it.

Ms. Semionova is a beautiful, but unusually tall dancer, and I expected her Juliet to be less emotionally compelling for that reason. But in her debut in the role with ABT on Tuesday, Ms. Semionova’s portrayal was surprisingly credible. Indeed, except for her first scene with the Nurse, which to me just looked silly because she seemed so miscast, Ms. Semionova became a convincing Juliet – but a different kind of Juliet. In order to overcome the size factor, Ms. Semionova chose to make her portrayal more hyperactive than willful. The interpretation came close to being childish rather than child-like, but it was the best way to handle the role for her, and she maintained her characterization, and her believability, throughout the piece.

Technically, her body is so long (relatively) that it takes longer for her legs to get where they’re supposed to go, and the image created looks somewhat different from that of other MacMillan Juliets. But that’s not intended as a negative – again, Ms. Semionova is different. What is usually a beautiful line became an extended one, with legs that don’t just create images but make statements; and what are usually seen as gentle, lyrical transitions must be modified to account for her added body length, resulting in movement that keeps pace with the music but looks pleasingly accelerated. But there were some things she couldn’t do – for example, she couldn’t hurtle herself into her Romeo during the balcony scene with the speed and force of other Juliets, and in the bier pas de deux her lifeless body was heavier, and as a result there were no soft landings -- you could hear her bones as they collided with the floor. And when she kissed Romeo during the balcony scene, she remained relatively flat-footed, because had she been ‘uplifted’ en pointe as are other Juliets, she would have been kissing Romeo’s forehead. All this sounds somewhat funny, but it had to have been a challenge. Ms. Semionova pulled it off, and the differences between her Juliet and others were not visible as deficiencies. Hers may have been a super-sized Juliet, but it was a good one.

But Ms. Semionova must share the credit for her fine performance with Mr. Hallberg. He had a difficult time lifting her, which was clearly visible from the first ‘press’ in the ‘anteroom’ scene in Act I (you could see the strain on his face) and continued as he carried her, with considerable difficulty, across the stage; and it was particularly apparent in the final scene, where several times he had to hike her up after the initial lift in order to secure his hold. But as difficult as it obviously was, Mr. Hallberg made her look light as a steel feather.

I mentioned last year that Mr. Hallberg’s partnering had improved exponentially. It continues to improve – but so does his acting. He has already won accolades this season, at least from me, for his superb portrayal in Alexei Ratmansky’s Chamber Symphony (part of his Shostakovich Trilogy). His Romeo is further demonstration of Mr. Hallberg's continuing development as more than just a pretty male body. He was casual where appropriate, intense where appropriate, funny where appropriate, and completely charming throughout.

Compared to Tuesday’s performance, Mr. Hallberg’s performance on Friday opposite Ms. Osipova must have been a walk in the park. And that’s how it appeared – he was more relaxed, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, in addition to executing and acting as well as he did on Tuesday.

To this viewer, Juliet is one of Ms. Osipova’s best roles. Freed from the need to throw tricks into her dancing, Ms. Osipova’s Juliet proves that she doesn’t need them – her technique is stunning enough without them. And hers was the strongest and most willful of the Juliets, and the one who changes most from the beginning of the ballet to the end. Her response to Paris, in each of the scenes where he appears, was highly developed and crystal clear – she disliked him on sight, and hated him as the story developed. In addition, her edge-of-the-bed scene has significantly improved (in her first Juliet, she never raised her head), and her scream is, well, to die for. She needs to resist the urge to help her Romeo pull her lifeless body off the floor in the final scene (I could see her 'jump off' the floor), but to me it was a brilliant portrayal, marred only by a sharp edge to her stage persona that makes empathy somewhat difficult.

But the shows on Tuesday and Friday belonged almost as much to Mr. Matthews as they did to Ms. Semionova, Ms. Osipova, and Mr. Hallberg. Mr. Matthews has so visibly grown in competence and confidence that his presence would be a reason to see the production even without stellar performances by other cast members. There is a bravado, and a cockiness, to him now (perfectly appropriate for Mercutio, and which was also apparent and appropriate in his Espada in Don Quixote earlier this season), but it never comes across as phony. He also adds idiosyncratic touches (throw-away gestures, ad libs) to make the role his own. Mr. Matthews owns the stage when he’s on it, and his performance as Mercutio was a tour de force.

Against Mr. Matthews, one would think that Mr. Gorak would fade into the woodwork. But Mr. Gorak has an elegance and refinement to him that is singular, and arresting, and in its own way his performance as Benvolio was as compelling to watch as Mr. Matthews.

On the other hand, certain performances were disappointing. Ms. Boylston's lead Harlot on Friday was the weakest of the four, and even though her animation level perked up now and then, she never came across as being fully engaged. And although his Benvolio on Wednesday afternoon was well-performed overall, Mr. Hoven needs to be careful not to overdo the choreography for the ballroom scene in Act I, particularly when he approaches and then splits apart attending couples. Unlike the other Benvolio portrayals, in this respect his portrayal appeared crude rather than audacious.

As I mentioned, the role of Tybalt in this production seems to have undergone a sea change, not for the better. Tybalt needs to be nasty. Whether that nastiness takes the form of drunkenness, being a bully, obsessiveness, or just being off his meds, the one thing he cannot be is bland. Each of the three Tybalts was bland. Mr. Ogle had no power to his performance at all, and Mr. Radetsky managed a snarl once or twice, but quickly removed it. Mr. Zhurban’s Tybalt at least had some semblance of attitude, but not much. [Where was Ivan Vasiliev when we needed him?] Since I’ve seen each of these dancers in other roles give more vigorous portrayals (including Mr. Radetsky’s Paris this season, to which he gave a highly nuanced portrayal, and Mr. Zhurban’s Lord Capulet as a nascent Soprano), it appears that this change is not simply the accidental conjunction of similar performances. If ABT has, for whatever reason, decided to tone Tybalt down, that would be unfortunate. Without the malevolence, there’s nothing to hate.

There also seems to be an overall reduction in the production’s quality. The ‘village’ scenes at the beginning of the ballet and at the beginning of Act II look less sharp than they have previously. And, except with respect to the principals, the swordplay in each of the four performances I saw lacked the requisite intensity, and, worse, looked programmed, as if the Capulet and Montague clans were just going through the motions. Of course the sword fights must be choreographed – but they shouldn’t look choreographed. [I must note, however, that in one of the four ‘duels’ between Mercutio and Tybalt in Act II, Tybalt lost his sword before he was supposed to. It was quickly replaced – he was provided with a replacement sword by one of the Capulet entourage. Apparently this is a built-in fall-back mechanism in case of such an eventuality (either that or the product of quick thinking by an unidentified male corps dancer). Regardless, it was nifty.]

Finally, this brings me to a discussion of Hee Seo’s Juliet (aided by a fine portrayal, in every respect, by her Romeo, Roberto Bolle).

When she debuted as Juliet several years ago, I found Ms. Seo’s performance to be engaging but somewhat tentative (not a surprise, since it was her debut), and declared her performance to be promising. The promise has been fulfilled.

Ms. Seo has developed into a dancer of rare delicacy and dramatic prowess. Her Tatiana (in Onegin) last year defied belief – it was that good. And she repeated that extraordinary performance again this year. Her Juliet now matches her success as Tatiana: She doesn’t just act the character, she becomes it. I found it remarkable last year, when, during Onegin’s final scene, I could see tears streaming down Ms. Seo’s face. There were no tears with her Juliet – there wasn’t time. But she inhabited her role as Juliet in a different way. Each of the Juliets drinks the poison supplied by Friar Laurence and becomes visibly nauseous and gags. It’s part of the choreography, and part of the character. But when Ms. Seo drank the poison, her nausea was palpable, and her gagging real (not realistic – real). So real, in fact, that it was audible. I could hear her gagging -- really gagging -- at the back of the orchestra.

Ms. Seo’s Juliet does what the other superlative Juliets do, but she brands it differently. Being age appropriate has a lot to do with it, but that’s only one ingredient. Ms. Seo’s strength is an inner strength, which doesn’t need to be manifested by excessive expression. [I found her edge-of-the-bed scene to be both powerful and powerfully understated, very similar to Ms. Vishneva’s.] There’s room for further improvement, but there always is. [For example, in the final scene, she was too close to Paris’s body when the music required that Juliet kill herself. This resulted in her having to move too far and too quickly to get to the bier and position her body appropriately over Romeo’s, but this is minor and easily corrected.] What’s critical is Ms. Seo’s sense of serenity and gentleness. Her Juliet is sweet, and you feel for her not just because of the character she develops, but because of the person she appears to be. And when she screams the 'Scream', understated but blood-curdling nonetheless, it not only sends shivers up and down your spine and makes you shed a reflexive tear, it makes you want to pick her up and carry her off and tell her everything will be all right, and maybe sue Shakespeare and MacMillan for doing this to her.

This isn’t the time to lament opportunities given by ABT to some dancers and not others, or to wonder whether other dancers could, if given the opportunity, develop their own strengths and leave their own indelible memories, as Juliet or in other roles. It’s time to celebrate wonderful performances, including Ms. Seo’s Juliet - a Juliet to add to ABT’s ranks of extraordinary Juliets.

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