May 7. 2021
Helgi Tomasson created this Romeo and Juliet in 1994, actually a revision of a production from twenty years earlier. It’s full of attention to dramatic detail, proving that text can indeed be translated readily into dance, although it must be said that film greatly assists this process as the director can narrow the focus of the audience without the chance that such details may be missed.
The story is clearly told with characters and relationships drawn in detail, even for the lesser roles. As he quite correctly observes in the programme, ” “I thought it was necessary to convey that [depth of character] because it’s not just Romeo and Juliet – it’s the people around them that make the story happen the way it does.”
Overlaying the film with quotations from the text at certain scene changes works well, but do we really captions denoting the scene of the action which is already perfectly clear?
The two lovers are true to the characters suggested by Shakespeare. As Juliet, Maria Kochetkova is initially full of the fun and airy light-heartedness of the thirteen-year-old she plays. She makes everything look easy. Her later revelling in the exuberance that only first love brings is wonderful. At the ball, she rarely takes her eyes off Romeo, even when dancing with the dashing Myles Thatcher’s Paris. By whispering her infatuation to her Nurse, Juliet pulls her in to the drama at the very outset. Davit Karapetyan’s Romeo is athletic and powerful, yet graceful. Both radiate stage presence.
Tomasson’s balcony pas de deux is up there with the best. Languid ports de bras interpose with quick grasps to underline the impetuous nature of teenage love, aided and abetted, of course, by Prokofiev’s lush and delicate scoring, flutes bubbling like a limpid stream while strings swoop and soar.
Luke Ingham’s Tybalt is an angry firebrand. When he is prevented to eject the interlopers from the ball by his parents, it provides Mercutio with the opportunity to distract the attention of one of the Capulet men so that Romeo can slip into his place and dance. This does not go unnoticed by first the Nurse and then Lord Capulet (Ricardo Bustamante) who escorts his daughter away before trouble can commence. Not before Tybalt again gets a chance to display his ire, however.
Benvolio and Mercutio (Joseph Walsh and Pascal Molat) are a dynamic duo who take every opportunity to fool around, flirting with the street harlots or bait Tybalt. At the ball, they manage to intercept a pair of Capulet ladies, suggesting that the enmity between the houses is not as great (at this stage) as is usually depicted. In the marketplace, they lose no opportunity to emulate the acrobats (a marvellous motley trio that provide a refreshing interlude) with some flashy dancing accompanied by the town’s ladies of easy virtue.
Fight choreographer Martino Pistone really comes into his own with his direction, displaying an especially convincing and sensational set-to between Romeo and Tybalt. Juliet is a direct witness to the final moments, a parallel to the romantic balcony scene as she, her Nurse and her parents overlook the body from the parapet. Lord and Lady Capulet (Sofiane Sylve) are given every reason to hate Romeo, Lady Capulet striking Romeo as Benvolio drags him away from the prone and lifeless body of Tybalt.
Several times, Tomasson nods to the Nurse’s complicity. Present at the wedding, she chides the couple for kissing before such a solemn ceremony. Then, as the “light from yonder window” enters Juliet’s bedchamber, it’s stressed further. The wonderfully subtle raising of an eyebrow by Anita Paciotti highlights her dilemma as Paris is ushered in again; something that film permits us to relish to the full. She is powerless to intervene as the alliance is cemented, however, leaving Juliet with no lack of motivation for overcoming her fear of imbibing the potion on the very bed where she and Romeo consummated their marriage.
Tomasson, unusually for most and unlike even Nureyev, provides a detailed scene where Friar’s Laurence’s emissary misses Romeo, thus breaking the chain of communication that could have led to a very different conclusion.
At the end, it is Romeo who closes the gates of the sepulchre and also seals his own fate on his return from exile. A close up on Juliet’s hand shows first one finger and then another uncurl as she awakens to her own horror. Faint with grief, she kisses Romeo, tasting the poison his lips before seizing his dagger and joining him in death.
The film showcases wonderfully the detail in costumes that is not often visible to an audience. Jens-Jacob Worsaae’s stylised designs with light fabrics suggest the heavy opulence of the period and provide lots of scope for detailed beading and appliqué. Overall, the visual effect is pleasing, but it rather undermines the gravitas of the Capulets, especially in the Knights dance. Sadly, Worsaae was no longer alive when this film was made, the production being the last that he worked on.
It also includes two excellent interval interviews, the first with Tomasson, Martin West, and leading dancers and wardrobe staff. Tomasson describes the influence of a 1936 black and white film version which perhaps explains his level of dramatic detail.
The second, with Pistone, provides a fascinating insight into the replica period weapons. His grave and gravelly voice is undercut by the twinkle in his eye as he explains why dancers use both a parrying dagger and a rapier. It’s certainly the most rigorous attention at authenticity that I have seen in a ballet. It clearly provides more than the usual challenges to the dancers who, with admirable aplomb, manage to stage convincingly accurate fights whilst sustaining the dance and the drama. “Battered and bruised and bleeding for real [in rehearsal] turns into safety and control and excitement on stage” as Ingham so aptly states.
There is also a little insight into the Company and School and the $50m annual bill that enables its functions.
San Francisco Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet is available to May 26, 2021. Visit www.sfballet.org for details and tickets.