San Francisco Ballet’s Luscious Production of Romantic Tragedy
By Courtney Blackburn
Nearly every high school student in America has read William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The story of “too passionate to last” first love, warring families, and the ultimate, unnecessary sacrifice has struck a chord for centuries. It’s been translated in theater, film, music, written word, and dance—specifically, ballet.
Earlier this year, San Francisco Ballet performed Romeo and Juliet with original choreography by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and traditional score by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). The best part? They then contracted with Fathom Events to broadcast this sumptuous production as a one-night-only event in movie theaters all over America.
On Sept. 24, 2015, Los Angeles-area venues such as AMC of Arcadia aired the two-and-a-half hour special. Swords clashed. Violins sang out a mournful harmony. Men and women flew across the stage, so graceful they appeared superhuman.
From day dawning in a gaily-lit piazza full of colorful character to a dark, somber, and lonely cemetery, SFB’s Romeo and Juliet is a heart-pounding delight from beginning to end. It rivals international productions put on by the Royal Ballet in England and Bolshoi in Russia. But this version in particular has an innate logic, naturalism in every movement, and beauty every way you turn—sound, sights, and feelings.
Not a word of Shakespeare’s immortal dialogue is spoken. Yet the story is told with passion, violence, and clarity through the body language of the dancers. Every corps de ballet member mills around, gossips soundlessly, or goes about daily life as if they were really in 15th century Italy.
The reason? Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson never danced Romeo himself, but he has re-sculpted this ballet with the heart of a Romeo. He brought in real sword-masters to choreograph the Montagues and Capulets’ duels. He has every dancer on stage keep interacting in a way that’s completely natural to the scene, making the corps’ background performance seem real. The costumes were authentically researched from Verona. The multi-layered sets were beautifully designed by Jens-Jacob Worsaae (his final production). The dramatic and stirring Dance of the Knights was rich and full of drama—with added subtext of a Tybalt/Lady Capulet affair. Blink and you’ll miss it, but SFB has put it in there, deepening the characters’ relationships with each other on screen. There’s a reason San Francisco Ballet is whispered to be one of the top three companies in America by those in the know.
Juliet is a role to rival the famous Odette/Odile of Swan Lake, or the tragic Giselle, for the ballerina. Starting as a playful, almost childish girl, Juliet is spun into a passionate lover and wife. She ends a broken, suicidal woman. The role demands more than flawless dancing—it grabs the heart and even draws blood. Maria Kochetkova, portraying Juliet, refused to say in an interview how she felt about the character. Only her dancing tells the story. Her Juliet retains childish gestures throughout, even to wrapping the deceased Romeo’s arm around her as she goes to join him. Her actions are those of a woman, but her heart is pure.
Romeo is a strapping Davit Karapetyan, who with his friend and foil Mercutio (Pascal Molat) starts off with gaity and youthful enthusiasm, but descends into the darker role of murderer and exile later in the story. He and Maria Kochetkova complete each other beautifully. Before their pas de deux, the stage was being dominated by the supporting cast: Luke Ingham’s haughty and menacing Tybalt, Anita Paciotti’s dotty and fond nursemaid, and Pascal Molat’s irreverent yet athletic clowning. But once Romeo and Juliet stole a moment alone, they were the only stars in the spotlight.
All too soon, the two hour-37-minute tragedy drew to a close. It was hard to keep dry eyes. Never had Romeo and Juliet felt like a tale of more woe than in this mute, beautiful, stunningly acted appeal to one of the greatest love stories of all time.
Romeo and Juliet in ballet form came into existence in the late 1700s in Italy, not too far removed from the story’s setting in Verona. It next appeared in Russia in early 1800, and came into its own in the 20th Century, with Sergei Prokofiev’s soaring, dramatic, and tender orchestration.
Excellent background information on SFB’s production can be viewed at their website, https://www.sfballet.org/tickets/production/program_notes?prodid=2675. You should also go to their website and beg for a DVD release of this production, because it is that good. No Mercutio dies with such a mix of false bravado, humor, and pain as Pascal Molat. No Tybalt is as devilish as Luke Ingham. No Juliet as pure or powerful as woman-child Maria Kochetkova. I will certainly be doing just that, as soon as this review is over…https://www.sfballet.org.
Fathom Events also broadcasts other special engagements in theatres, such as operas from the Met, pay-per-view sporting events, and other concerts. Their schedule may be viewed at www.fathomevents.com. Their next ballet broadcast is a program by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre of New York City on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, at 7 p.m.; next month, there’s Ballet Hispanico Nov. 12 at 7 p.m., and famed choreographer George Balanchine’s Jewels by the Bolshoi Nov. 15th at 12:55p.m. For $15 a ticket, you can escape the Southland heat in a dark theater, surrounded by lush classical music and ethereal dancing.