San Francisco Ballet
Romeo and Juliet
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
8 May 2015
It’s always good to go out on a high note, and San Francisco Ballet finished strong with its season-ending program, Romeo & Juliet. Choreographed by artistic director Helgi Tomasson in 1994, the ballet is popular with audiences here and makes a satisfying coda to his thirtieth-anniversary season. The eleven-performance run features six different principal casts, with two couples making their title-role debuts; Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno gave theirs, to tremendous ovations, at the Saturday, May 2, matinee.
Tomasson set his Romeo on Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 score, the seminal music used by Leonid Lavrovsky, Sir Frederick Ashton, John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan in their turn. Tomasson emphasized character and storytelling with a mix of understated, sensuous movement for Juliet, classical showmanship for the men and heavy mime throughout. The different techniques layer together seamlessly, endowing the characters with clear identity and motivation while leaving room for each dancer to add their personality.
Froustey danced a free-spirited Juliet, headstrong and heedless of her duty as marriage chattel, yet submitting fully and willingly to Romeo. The role suits Froustey’s stage persona: she has sparkling eyes and a flirtatious confidence. As Juliet, she modulated her often-impulsive energy so that the delicate attitude turns, piqué balances and flowing port de bras showcased the character more than the dancer, to lovely effect.
On a deeper level, Froustey seems to identify with Juliet’s independent nature. In Act II, when Lord Capulet (a merciless Val Caniparoli) and his Lady (Kristina Lind, with considerably less gravitas) force their secretly-newlywed daughter to accept the dull and conventional Paris (Steven Morse), one senses that Froustey, not just Juliet, simply cannot allow her spirit to be broken. (What we would call child abuse was simply dynastic management back then; one has to wonder if it’s as emotionally difficult for a ballerina to dance as it is for some of us to watch.) Less effective was the subtler transition from immature teen to worldly woman; Froustey gestures with increasing urgency as the tale progresses from the balcony to the crypt, but an internal shift, rather than an emphatic one, would add dimension to the portrayal and deepen the connection to her partner.
If you’re going to cross stars with a lover, let it be Carlo Di Lanno. This young dancer is everything a Romeo ought to be: technically pure yet natural, tender yet honor-bound to fight, conflicted yet focused on his one true desire. Under the balcony, he stands vulnerably on turned-in legs, his shoulders rounded and arms enveloping Juliet, then he floats through a manège of jetés en tournant with impeccable flexibility and ballon. In turns, he spots Juliet’s eyes; in lifts, he gazes up at her and would rather take blind steps than look away. Trained at La Scala, Di Lanno danced with that company and Staatsballett Berlin before joining SFB last year as a soloist; he deserves serious consideration for promotion this year.
Pascal Molat and Joseph Walsh were a rascally Mercutio and Benvolio, eager to crash the Capulet bash with their boon lad Romeo and just as ready for a fight. In Tomasson’s tour de force choreography, the men gave one allegro sequence after another, not to mention several thrilling swordfights (choreographed by Martino Pistone with Tomasson). Molat played the fool as well as the cad, using gestures obscene and mirthful to goad Luke Ingham’s tightly-wound Tybalt into a final duel.
After all that artfully timed drama, Mercutio’s death comes as a long, somewhat silly goodbye; in a ballet made after 1940, mortal stab wounds to the chest ought not lead to courtly dancing, passionate gesticulating and whore-groping. Tomasson frequently adapts music to suit his compositions, either interpolating or deleting sections or whole movements; here, a judicious musical hastening of Mercutio’s end might be merciful all around.
The same goes for the piazza scenes, which outstay their duty to establish the time, place and tension of the story. Trimming the music or exchanging some of the harlotry (danced very well by Isabella De Vivo and Ellen Rose Hummel, in spite of some unbecoming, and needless, shoulder shimmies and tush wiggles) for domestic scenes of commerce and everyday life might enhance the scenery and keep things moving.
Speaking of scenery, the late Jens-Jacob Worsaae’s sets and costumes cast Renaissance Verona in warm peach, red and amber, darkened with foreboding swathes of black. The piazza’s arches and columns suggest the era’s new approach to architecture, while faded frescoes evoke the ancient church. The courtiers are lavishly decked in velvets, jade and gold ropes, though the blue jackets for the Montague boys are a welcome visual break from the overall black-and-orange fabric palette. Lighting by the late Thomas R. Skelton evokes Italy’s lovely sunshine and carefully guides the eye with well-placed highlights and spots.
Under the baton of conductor Ming Luke, the orchestra played as energetically at the end of the season as at the beginning – just as the dancers danced. It was a lovely finish that left San Francisco Ballet fans wanting more, but they’ll simply have to pine for next season. Parting is indeed sweet sorrow.