American Ballet Theatre: Romeo and Juliet
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY
June 18, 19, 20
As I’ve probably made all too obvious over the years, I’m a softie. My weakest link is Romeo and Juliet, and I consider Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s version to be the gold standard. What makes his ballet extraordinary to me is the combination of passion with essential innocence and impulsiveness of the lead characters, both of which are embedded in the choreography. The ideal portrayal not only reflects these qualities, but also transcends the fourth wall and engenders a personal response. For example, Alessandra Ferri combined passion with innocence no matter her age, and brought me (and I daresay anyone with a beating heart) onto the stage with her when she danced the role – consequently, hers is my gold standard of Juliets. Portrayals that are more passionate than appropriate, or come across as mature beyond their years, or are too aggressive, kill it for me. On the other hand, seeing the passion grow within the bodies of the youthful Shakespearean characters makes it sublime. And then there’s the vast territory in between.
There was a lot of ‘territory in between’ in the three portrayals of Juliet and of Romeo that I saw with American Ballet Theatre last week: Evgenia Obraztsova and Herman Cornejo on Thursday 18th, Hee Seo and Marcelo Gomes the following evening, and Misty Copeland and Joseph Gorak. The first, after a slightly shaky start, was very well done. The third was promising – particularly if assigned different partners in the future. And the portrayals and performances of the second were miraculous.
Obraztsova, one of ABT’s many guest artists this season, had been disappointing in her previous outings in New York – with the Mariinsky during its 2011 engagement at the Met, and most recently at two of the galas presented under the auspices of the Youth America Grand Prix. But she’s clearly a dancer of quality, and the role of Juliet suits her well.
Her portrayal was not without flaws, most of them minor (and not all within her control), but they’re there. Her opening scene was far too stiff and one-dimensional, and she wore fixed plastic smile through most of ballet, until the third act. And at the beginning of the balcony scene, she spent too much time in shadow behind the portico pillars, and took too long to reach down to Romeo at its end. Most importantly, I could see the transitions as she’d prepare for a certain combination, and some of these transitions ended up looking too much like brief poses (particularly in Act III’s bedroom scene). But she was very good when she had to be, and her experience as a Juliet showed. Overall, it was a skillfully executed, emotionally fulfilling, and high quality performance – definitely one of the better portrayals I’ve seen.
Her partner, Herman Cornejo, was somewhat off in Act I – both on his own and in his first dances with Obraztsova. Although they interacted reasonably well, I felt they were oil and water – just not the right stage match. Regardless, following Act I, he delivered a fine Romeo throughout the rest of the performance. As good as Obraztsova was, Seo delivered one for the ages the following night.
ABT has a plethora of ballerinas who have danced Juliet, and others who can, but have never been given the opportunity. Seo was appropriately assigned one performance of Juliet (the second of the season) when casting was initially announced. After injuries sidelined two previously-cast Juliets, Polina Semionova and Natalia Osipova, Seo was given Seminonova’s opening Juliet, as well as Osipova’s slot opposite Marcelo Gomes (who himself had replaced the injured David Hallberg). And Friday, when it was disclosed a few hours before the performance that Diana Vishneva had suddenly withdrawn because of illness, Seo was announced as her replacement.
Seo’s technical capability, strength and stamina have heretofore been suspect in a number of critical roles, although to me, her refined delicacy and understated demeanor make high volume emotion stand out more prominently, and few ballerinas at ABT can match that. Seo’s performances in Onegin, for instance, were extraordinary in their in-the-moment intensity. However, her performances this season have been relatively lackluster.
All this being said, and my preference for a broader range of casting opportunities aside, Seo delivered a sublime performance, all the more remarkable because it was her third in five days, and because she won over an alienated audience. I wouldn’t put it in the same league as Vishneva yet, but it was one of the most indelible Juliets I can remember.
I cannot identify a single flaw: her acting was moderated appropriately from the first minute to the last. Her edge-of-the-bed was minimally expressive, but just right – you could see the light go on in her head without any excess histrionics, and she inserted her own nuances throughout that made Juliet her own. In short, she was a believable sixteen year old girl, overwhelmed by passion, her own impulsiveness, and forces outside of her control. Technically, her transitions were seamless, her extensions to die for, and, like Obraztsova, her bourrées were flawless. And no matter how many performances I see, and even though I know it’s coming, that MacMillan Scream, when executed well, still touches my inner softie. Obraztsova got me to brush back a tear; with Seo I choked back a river. Of those ABT dancers who have assayed the role, and aside from Vishneva, hers is the most compelling.
Seo’s remarkable performance was based on her own ability. But there’s no doubt that it was also in part the product of having Gomes as a partner. He’s the most valuable member of ABT’s roster: his attentiveness and skill allow his partner to perform free from fear, something that few male dancers in this company can do. It’s unfortunate that he can’t partner every ballerina in the company – he and whoever he partners always look perfect together.
Gomes was an extraordinary Romeo as well. At this point, one would think that he might want to put this role behind him, but his Romeo was exceptional – free-wheeling, vital, and surprisingly youthful. Bravo.
The performance by Copeland and Gorak on Saturday afternoon wasn’t in the same league as the other two for a variety of reasons. But it was certainly promising – more for each individually than the two of them together.
Copeland’s first appearance was seriously flawed. Her timing was somewhat off the music, but more importantly, she overdid the cutesy stuff. The beginning of Scene 4 (the Capulet ballroom), when she first appears and briefly dances, started out the same way. But once she got away from trying to act sixteen, her performance improved because the emphasis was on overt emotion and aggressiveness, which are her strengths. Generally, she executed the balcony, bed, and bier scenes well, albeit with acting that was somewhat over-baked. But nuances were missing. The passionate dancing didn’t look seamless – but again, for someone new to the role, that’s understandable. Worse, when in the bedroom scene she’s required to extend her arms and legs at various points, she pushed them out from her body like independent gestures instead of being a piece of the choreography. Her bourrées in Act III were poor – instead of floating across the stage with steps that appear separated by millimeters, hers were a connection of separate steps at least six or more inches apart. And there was a partnering issue.
Gorak did a generally good job of partnering, although he made lifting look difficult. Maybe he and Copeland are just not right for each other.
In other roles, on Thursday Daniil Simkin played Daniil Simkin playing Mercutio, milking every turn in the process. He danced very well, as he always does on his own. In the role on Friday, Craig Salstein’s Mercutio was equally energetic, but his performance was less about him showing off. And Arron Scott’s on Saturday afternoon was quite accomplished for one so relatively new to it. Devon Teuscher gave Lady Capulet considerable depth, and Stephanie Williams’s portrayal was finely done as well, but she looked a little too young for the role. And in the current trend toward de-fanging Tybalt, only Roman Zhurbin was sufficiently nasty – the others were just having a bad day.