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Romeo and Juliet

A Juliet That Makes You Misty-Eyed

Music by Sergei Prokofiev, Choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan,
American Ballet Theatre, Filene Center, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Virginia
Thursday & Friday, July 14 & 15, 2016, E–34&35 (center front orchestra) and OO–34&36 (rear right orchestra)
Conducted by Ormsby Wilkins (July 14), David LaMarche (July 15)

Romeo, masked, in blue paisley waistjacket with puffy sleeves and gray tights has right arm out and left arm around the waist of Juliet, in shin-length yellow dress, right foot en pointe, left leg kicked back, arms floating up. Stairs and a caged chandelier of candles in background
Joseph Gorak as Romeo and Misty Copeland as Juliet meet at the Capulets' party in the American Ballet Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet. Below, Cory Stearns and Hee Seo dance the parts of the famous lovers. Photos by Rosalie O'Connor, American Ballet Theatre.

We planned to see this one night only. The American Ballet Theatre was at Wolf Trap's Filene Center for three performances of Romeo and Juliet, and we bought our tickets for the first night during a members-only presale last winter. Weeks before the show, however, we added the second performance when we learned it would feature Misty Copeland dancing Juliet. In ballet, the principal dancers change from performance to performance.

So did my perspective change from one night to the next, not so much for what was happening on stage, but what was happening around us.

I'm not a fan of Choreographer Kenneth MacMillan's representation of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and I'm more annoyed by than enamored with Sergei Prokofiev's score; but Juliet, in particular, can be a wonderful experience in the right appendages, and Hee Seo danced her brilliantly in the first show in tandem with Cory Stearns's Romeo. That was the review I planned to write after watching Thursday night's performance from the center of the fifth row. On Friday night, even before the curtain rose, I mentally tossed that outline aside and began drafting an entirely different approach as we took our seats at the back of Wolf Trap's outdoor amphitheater.

The audience had significantly expanded for the second night, beyond Filene Center's 7,000 capacity (one of the largest crowds in Wolf Trap history, according to reports), but also in makeup as the color palette of patronage was predominantly dark-skinned. It made me think of the impact Jackie Robinson had on attendance at Major League baseball stadiums in 1947 when African-Americans came out in large numbers to see the man who broke through baseball's color barrier. Copeland seems to have had a similar impact on ballet. It made for a crowd unschooled in ballet format and etiquette: each lift prompted applause, as if we were watching a circus act of acrobats, while the dancers' exquisite footwork was largely ignored (or incited laughter when Copeland's Juliet moved across the stage en pointe). If I'm sounding snobbish, I plead guilty, but in my defense the cheers intruded on the ballet's waves of dramatic emotion sweeping toward their grand climaxes whereupon, at the end of each dance, you can let rip the hoots and hollers of "brava!" or "bravo!" But so what? If even a tenth of that novice crowd newly appreciates ballet—and I suspect only a tenth of that novice crowd didn't walk away new fans—I'll happily tap down my annoyance and pull my nose out of the clouds and thank Copeland for what she's brought to ballet.

But is a black audience all that she's brought to ballet? Is the hype generated by her Under Armour endorsement her primary contribution? Is she worth her own Barbie doll? Is she that good? Granted, you don't become a soloist at a company like the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) at age 25, and then named a principal ballerina eight years later, the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal in the ABT's 76-year history, without being that good. But I was basing my judgment on the personal experiences of having been blown away watching Margot Fonteyn, Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anthony Dowell, and, my own personal favorite, Lesley Collier.

My moment of truth came in the second scene. By then I was turning sour, having navigated a traffic jam to the parking lot, having to put up with late-seaters throughout Act 1, Scene 1 (the Marketplace), and suffering the stifling heat (it was so hot, the night before as the bushy-haired Stearns pirouetted around a harlot, sweat flew from his head like a rotating lawn sprinkler). I also was enduring for the second night the Dallas theme-song motif of Prokofiev's score and MacMillan's strange character choices (namely, the three harlots and a randy Romeo). The only promising note was Joseph Gorak's precision work as Romeo in that first scene. In the second scene, Copeland's Juliet appears (to thunderous applause), playing with her doll and Nurse (Susan Jones) before being introduced by her parents, Lady Capulet (Stephanie Williams) and Lord Capulet (Roman Zhurbin) to Paris (Sterling Baca). The suddenly timid Juliet plays out her nervousness and uncertainty in delicate movements all en pointe. While much of the rest of the audience is laughing, I'm mentally matching Copeland with Gorak's Romeo in the first scene. Leaning over to my wife I whispered, "This is going to be good." Yeah, Copeland's that good. It's obvious in the first two minutes of her performance, which grows in athletic artistry as the three-hour ballet (plus two intermissions) transpires.

Before we dive into that, however, let's talk Shakespeare first; or, rather, MacMillan, for it's noteworthy that Shakespeare's name does not appear in the program. MacMillan choreographed Romeo and Juliet, set to Prokofiev's music, in 1965 for London's Royal Ballet. It had a highly controversial debut at the Royal Opera House, but not for reasons of content, rather for choice of dancers. MacMillan intended that Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable should dance the titular lovers; the Royal Ballet decided to premiere the piece with the more famous Nureyev and Fonteyn dancing the leads. MacMillan was miffed, but the audience's 43 curtain calls that night created an instant classic. The ballet has been in the Royal Ballet's repertoire since and entered the ABT repertoire 20 years later.

1965—think about that. It was the waning days of Beatlemania and the dawn of Carnaby Street fashion while Harold Wilson's Labour government had taken over from the Conservatives. In many ways, MacMillan's choreography reflects the mood of that time. The Capulets are portrayed as conservative killjoys. Capulet's "old-accustomed feast" is as grim a party as you could ever attend, opening with a score and "dance" that could be called the March of the Orcs. Tybalt frowns on all the joking shenanigans and sexual innuendo going on in the marketplace, and sometimes he and his henchmen intervene with anybody having fun. Despite this, Thomas Forster (in both performances) portrays a noble Tybalt—not evil as I've seen it danced before—with enough empathy for the audience to mourn his death when Romeo runs him through.

By contrast, the Montagues (at least the younger set) are dashing, fun-loving, antiestablishment types. Romeo, Mercutio (Craig Salstein and Arron Scott on subsequent nights) and Benvolio (Blaine Hoven and Calvin Royal III), make up a pranking threesome of equal fervor, and though pining for Rosaline, Romeo hangs with the harlots (after meeting Juliet, however, he forswears the harlots, but remains friendly with them). Romeo also fully engages in the brawl of the opening scene—in fact, he is an instigator.

Macmillan was less interested in staging Shakespeare's story (and its themes) than he was in fulfilling ballet conventions. This inspires many of his departures from Shakespeare. Montague and Capulet actually fight with broadswords in the opening scene, Juliet meets Paris before the party, a half-dozen bridesmaids discover the supposedly dead Juliet in her bed chamber, and Romeo enters the Capulet tomb disguised as one of a long line of parading monks. And did I mention the three harlots, who are prominent figures in this Verona? How prominent? The dancers deserve naming: Devon Teuscher, Christine Shevchenko, and Alexandra Basmagy on the first night; Skylar Brandt, Catherine Hurlin, and Kelley Potter the second night.

Everything is done on a grand scale, from Designer Nicholas Georgiadis's looming sets and colorful Renaissance costumes to Thomas Skelton's wonderful lighting (the light breaking through yonder window will get your heart yearning); from the street fights, so precisely choreographed that the dancers' clinking swords and daggers become part of the score's percussion section, to the size of the corps de ballet. ABT populates the stage with more than 45 "ballroom guests and townspeople" in addition to the named characters and the three harlots, and each and every one of them is doing something all the time. Even as Salstein or Scott are nailing Mercutio's show-stopping dances, the ballroom guests and townspeople to the side are gesturing, jostling, or catfighting (Verona's women are as quick to fight as its men).

The biggest distraction comes when Romeo and Juliet appear on stage together for the first time; while she is presented to Paris and those two dance, Romeo is off to the side flirting with Rosaline (April Giangeruso and Paulina Waski). Who do you watch? If you watch Romeo, noting how Rosaline seems to be warming to him, you miss one of Juliet's fine moments; if you watch Juliet and Paris dance, you miss the moment Romeo notices her.

Concerned more with form and format, MacMillan misses Shakespeare's mark. I've always felt that whenever I see this ballet, but this time that sentiment was more jarring for me after seeing a string of Romeo and Juliets (Shakespeare's version plus West Side Story) that were so tonally and thematically relevant to 2016. Watching MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet is like watching a Laurence Olivier film: you can admire the dancing/acting, but, man, does the production seem moldy. I applaud ABT's devotion to showcasing ballet classics, but I'd like to see a more modern treatment for what is proving to be such a modern play (despite being written more than 400 years ago). I'd at least prefer Nureyev's 1977 choreography, which is thematically closer to Shakespeare and gives us a 21st century Juliet.

That said, MacMillan, concentrating his story on a young girl's coming of age, created one of the finest roles in all of ballet with his Juliet and her breathtaking pairing with Romeo (and ABT has two thoroughly modern Juliets in Seo and Copeland). As mentioned above, the astonishing role announces itself when she meets Paris in the ballet's second scene, danced almost entirely en pointe. It's not so much that she doesn't like Paris; she's simply too young to fall in love. She likes being a little girl and playing with dolls, but when she goes back to her playfulness after her parents escort Paris out, Nurse stops Juliet short by pointing out her forming breasts. The motifs used in Juliet's first dance with Paris are repeated in the final act when she refuses to marry Paris, but this time she's a woman, longing for the man who had just escaped through her bed chamber window.

Romeo, whit shirt and gray tights, lifts Juliet in orang dress, her legs scissored back behind her, her right arm around Romeo's neck with her left hand stretched backShakespeare has Romeo and Juliet meet with a sonnet; MacMillan uses the ballet form of a sonnet, a pas de deux, for the meeting. It's the first of four dances for the pair: the balcony scene, in which Juliet literally throws herself at Romeo and he weaves her around his body; the morning lark scene (the bird beautifully represented musically in Prokofiev's score) in which the couple share an everlasting love at the point of a heart-aching farewell; and in the tomb when Romeo dances with the lifeless Juliet, still affected by Friar Laurence's potion.

In her portrayal of Juliet, Seo is a feather in the wind. So delicate and ethereal, she seems made of down. In the tomb, she is like a rag doll in Romeo's arms, so limber you would think she has no bones. Copeland's portrayal is more athletic, yet graceful, and she emotes the passions of a young girl experiencing true love and sexual awakening for the first time. From the moment they spy each other at the party, the chemistry between Copeland and Gorak is palpable from more than 40 rows away (plus orchestra pit), and their balcony scene has a half-dozen gasp-worthy moments—but not a lot of applause on this night; I think the audience was mesmerized into silence during the dance, given the exhaling roar of the crowd as the curtain fell at the end of the scene.

If you are a Shakespeare or ballet geek, you might have to set aside your snobbery and slice away MacMillan's moldy casings, but you must see this American Ballet Theatre production. Even if its Romeo and Juliet is a bit moldy, its Romeos and Juliets are that good.

Eric Minton
July 22, 2016

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