There was much to admire about the Washington Ballet’s production of John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet at the Kennedy Center Opera House this month. The company looked assuredly at home on the vast stage of the theater, filling the space with a palpable sense of grandeur one might not expect from a chamber-size troupe. On opening night the company were augmented by dancers from the Studio Company, plus apprentices, and they danced their hearts out. And the Washington Ballet Orchestra, led by Beatrice Affron, was in a very fine form too.
Inspired by Leonid Lavrovsky’s landmark production for the Bolshoi Ballet, Cranko choreographed his own version of the Shakespearean tragedy for La Scala Ballet, in 1958. Four years later, he revised this production for the Stuttgart Ballet where he was artistic director. This staging has become one of the most popular and frequently performed versions of Prokofiev’s celebrated score.
The Joffrey Ballet was the first American company to perform Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet in the United States. The ballet’s American premier took place on December 13, 1984 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It was in this production that an aspiring ballerina and student of the local Winston Churchill High School named Julie Kent took part as one of supernumeraries. (I picture her glancing at the leading ballerina with admiration and a tinge of envy, hoping one day to dance the title role. She had no idea…)
It was coming full circle for Kent who greeted the audience of the Opera House in her pre-curtain remarks and acknowledged how much the ballet meant to her. “I could never have dreamed that I would find myself 30-plus years later orchestrating its return to the Kennedy Center as the director of the Washington Ballet,” she wrote in the program notes.
Over the course of the six-performance run, the company put on four different casts of the star-crossed lovers – no small feat for this troupe.
On opening night, the soulful, star-caliber performance of EunWon Lee in the role of Juliet was the indisputable highlight of the evening.
A former principal ballerina with the Korean National Ballet, Lee is in her second season with the company. She was one of the first dancers hired by Kent when the former star with American Ballet Theatre assumed Washington Ballet leadership. Last year, under Kent’s sensitive tutelage, Lee delivered a poignant reading of the title role in Giselle, proving that she is not only a brilliant dancer but also a natural actress. Her sensitive and intelligently-drawn portrayal of Juliet was another important step in her development as a major talent.
A strikingly beautiful ballerina, with a lissome body and expressive features, Lee is an ideal Juliet. What I admired most in her dancing was her unaffected way to color her movements with different shades of emotions. And her dramatic characterization throughout the ballet felt natural and sincere – not for a moment did I feel that she was acting as Juliet. She disappeared into her role entirely and completely, taking us on a journey into the inner world of her heroine. We witnessed this Juliet’s spiritual growth and maturity, tracing her transformation from a radiant, vibrant, full-of-life young girl to a passionate woman deeply in love, who will stop at nothing to follow her heart.
Gian Carlo Perez was a noble, mature and sensitive Romeo. The handsome and solidly-built Cuban-born dancer imbued his character with a notable heroic flair. Perez’s characterization wasn’t as striking and dramatically convincing as Lee’s; yet he managed to create a formidable account of a young man, who was transformed, by the power of love, from a carefree skirt-chaser to an affectionate and devoted soul. His bravura dancing felt somewhat underwhelming – his jumps looked heavy and landings still required technical exactitude and polish. Yet he is surely a prodigious turner; a mighty whirlwind of revolutions in his solo numbers aptly served as a metaphor for Romeo’s untamed passionate ardor. And Perez proved an excellent partner. The climatic duets in the balcony scene and the bedroom pas de deux which reflect the emotional development of the protagonists were exceptionally danced, Lee gorgeously floating in her partner’s strong, secure arms as a weightless specter.
Tamás Krizsa’s Paris was hopelessly too shy and short in stature to stand a chance against Perez’s Hercules-like Romeo. Nevertheless, the rejected suitor, in Krizsa’s rendition, came across as a gentle and likable lad, desperately wanted to be like by Juliet. That’s why his death in the end seemed particularly senseless and harrowing.
Rolando Sarabia was fittingly arrogant and cold as the murderous Tybalt – a black-clad bully with a heart of a stone. The excellent Andile Ndlovu as Mercutio emphasized his character mischievous wit and clown-like demeanor; and Kateryna Derechyna was gloriously melodramatic as the fickle and callous Lady Capulet.
In this production, the ensemble scenes dominate (and often overpower) the intimate moments allotted to the lovers. The Washington Ballet corps took advantage of the spotlight, bringing dedication and youthful zest into the ballet’s crowd scenes. Fiery sword face-offs between the feuding clans looked theatrical and animated; and the famous “pillow dance” at the Capulets ball received in this performance a particularly potent dramatic treatment – an ominous prelude to the impending tragedy.