American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
July 18, 19 afternoon, and 22, afternoon and evening, 2023
Romeo and Juliet
American Ballet Theatre completed its 2023 MET season this year with a 7-performance run of Romeo and Juliet – the version choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, which I’ve described previously as the gold standard of Romeo and Juliets. I saw four of the performances, with four different lead casts.
As was the case with Giselle and Swan Lake in my two prior weeks’ reviews, the story, production, and my comments as to this production’s quality have been the subject of many prior reviews, and the facts of MacMillan’s choreography – including the passionate pas de deux (balcony, bed, and bier) are well known. Accordingly, and except where it would be helpful to illuminate my observations, my focus here will be on the performances rather than on the nuts and bolts of the choreography itself.
Each of the casts I saw, particularly the Juliets (Devon Teuscher, Catherine Hurlin, Christine Shevchenko, and Cassandra Trenary) delivered extraordinary performances, any one of which would be a highlight of this, or any other, performance season. I can’t overemphasize this enough. But although each, in its own way (and differently from each other) merits more superlatives than even I can muster, Wednesday afternoon’s Romeo and Juliet (hereafter “R&J”) with Hurlin as Juliet stands out because for her it was a New York role debut, and a New York role debut, in ABT’s home city, is the one that really counts. Accordingly I’ll focus on that lead cast first, followed by the others in viewing order, and then discuss the various Tybalts, Mercutios, and other noteworthy cast members.
A few introductory remarks first.
As I’ve warned in my prior reviews of this season’s iconic ballets, most of my comments are primarily subjective. It goes with the emotional territory. But I’ve tried to provide specific, concrete, and objective examples of highlights and my few minor criticisms. Additionally, examples of nuance that I reference are changeable from performance to performance, even by the same ballerina. Consequently, there’s no warranty that what I observed and relate here will exist in a subsequent performance.
Maybe more than any other ballet, MacMillan’s R&J is an assemblage of very brief moments in time – as if each scene, each visual event within it, and each mini-action within that, can be explored microscopically. That’s a fact of most narrative ballets, but to me this production accommodates far more potential examples of such moments that can be isolated and individually discussed than others. And nuances that can make a fine performance great come and go in a flash, and are easily (and somewhat inevitably) missed. On the other hand, there are relatively few corps-wide circumstances that demand such attention here. Rather, the focus, nearly all the time, is on Juliet or Romeo or both together, as well as on dancers who may be featured in any given scene. That also doesn’t sound much different from other story ballets, but focusing on them and their execution and characterization nuances as I do here is less a choice than a necessity.
The “Hurlin/ Royal” cast:
I’ve seen some superb leading ballerina role debuts (first time, or just first time in NY) in recent years, that I feel blessed to have seen (many more over the past 50 years, but there’s a limit): Christine Shevchenko’s Odette/ Odile (and Tiler Peck’s, in the very different NYCB production), Hee Seo’s Tatiana (in John Cranko’s Onegin – which is long overdue for revival), Sarah Lane’s Giselle, Lane and Seo’s Manon, and Teuscher’s Jane Eyre are examples. In each of these instances, one knew if one had seen their performances previously, that – barring some catastrophe – they’d perform well in these new lead roles, but being surprised at how great the performances actually were.
That was the case with Hurlin’s Juliet. One knew if one had observed her appearance from Day 1 as Young Clara and her progress since then that her Juliet would be good, but no one (except maybe Hurlin) ever expected how great it would be.
I’ve been fortunate – I’ve never seen a poor performance of Juliet in MacMillan’s version (or other standard Shakespeare iterations); assuming technical competence, it’s almost a given. Technical prowess, acting and nuance, and in this role (as in Giselle) a naturally youthful appearance and demeanor can take it to another level of credibility and often of impact. Hurlin’s performance, aside from it being a NY debut, took Juliet to that other level. This was a world-class performance by any standard, and, in context, represented a remarkable NY role debut trifecta — a new leading role in three different ballet masterpieces once a week over a three week period (plus appearances in a non-leading role in Like Water For Chocolate during this season’s opening week), each brilliantly accomplished, that may alone earn Hurlin a place in ballet history.
And perhaps the scariest thing about it is that over time it probably will, somehow, get even better.
Everything that one would expect from a MacMillan Juliet – or any ballet Juliet – was in Hurlin’s portrayal. As with Giselle, I tend to prefer dark-haired Juliets (blame Freud, or in this case, Olivia Hussey), but from the moment she first appeared in Act I Scene 2, you knew that this Juliet would be a winner, and that everything she did was well-thought out and the result of conscious decisions. Her interaction with the Nurse and leaping into the Nurse’s lap – they all do that. Encouraging the Nurse to take the doll she was hiding behind her back when she’s first introduced to Paris – most (but not all) do that too. But her interaction with Paris took a middle-of-the-road position – loving the attention (and the thought of being an object of romantic attention), but to a visually explicit (and emphasized) restricted point; she didn’t dislike Paris on sight, as some Juliets do, but she was obviously uncomfortable at being touched by a young male stranger. And when the Nurse, in the closing moment of that scene, describes visually that she’ll soon grow into a woman, a reaction from Juliet thereafter ends the scene. I’ve seen every such reaction from various levels of surprise to no reaction at all. Hurlin looked excited about the thought, producing a smile of knowing satisfaction. A perfect harbinger.
And it just got better and better from there – youth combined with impulsiveness and passion – including a balcony scene that mined every emotional high, a bedroom scene that mined every emotional low, and a very fine “edge of the bed” interpretation in Act II – all leading up to her concluding silent scream that could be heard back in Stratford (Upon Avon, in England), and beyond. Of course I’ve seen, and felt, unforgettable Juliet “screams,” but this one broke the mold: as spine-tingling, hope-crunching, and heart-exploding as Alessandra Ferri’s (whose Juliet is the greatest of the many great Juliets I’ve seen), but somehow deeper, longer, and in two parts, one a millisecond after the other. And her crawl back to her concluding position atop her bier followed by an arm dropping down toward Romeo was timed perfectly to the second, without requiring any tempo adjustment by the orchestra. About the only moment I didn’t see in her performance was catapulting herself at Romeo with total abandon, utmost confidence, and the velocity of a speeding train during the balcony pas de deux as Diana Vishneva did, twice, in one of her Juliets with Marcelo Gomes. Hurlin delivered it more carefully, as most Juliets do. But give her time….
A large component of Hurlin’s superb debut was the stage relationship established with her Romeo. It looked as natural, and as passionate, as everything else about the performance. If Calvin Royal III’s Romeo wasn’t Hurlin’s equal, it’s only because the story — at least in this ballet iteration — is more “Juliet” than “Romeo.” His performance far exceeded my expectations, and I could tell that it did with other audience members as well.
Royal had more than the usual obstacles to overcome. He appears unusually tall and thin and decidedly not what some might consider to be a “hunky” ideal Romeo (as was the Romeo the previous night), and also doesn’t appear to have the necessary strength. But while some of his lifts noticeably weren’t extended as high as others, the vast majority were at the same level. And, benefitting from his apparently unusually long arms, which I noted in a review after the first time I saw him on stage and predicted might be a partnering benefit, his partnering appeared almost flawless. [There was one moment when, in mid-lift, their hands didn’t meet in the right place (at his side, toward his back), but this was quickly cured, and I suspect no one noticed.] Last, his acting and ardor matched Hurlin’s. They proved a very good stage match, and produced a majestic performance.
The “Teuscher/ Bell” cast:
Teuscher’s performance was every bit as fine as it was a year ago: maybe better. Although I wouldn’t consider her to be a “natural” Juliet, Teuscher was believable from the outset. Her take on her initial contact with Paris was far more favorable than I recall seeing from other Juliets (she withdrew her hand from his a few times, as the choreography requires, but appeared ecstatic over the attention some male other than her father or other relative (Tybalt) was paying to her, evidenced by a consistent smile throughout the scene, but the way she did it worked for her – and was appropriately replaced as soon as she spied her Romeo.
In all respects her execution of MacMillan’s choreography, as well as the characterization that the role requires, was exemplary, including an unusual (to me) and highly effective “edge of the bed” scene in Act II. One of the finest such scenes was in Vishneva’s first Juliet (or first one that I saw) with ABT. Her head didn’t change position, but one could see the lightbulb go off through her eyes alone when her thoughts finally landed on Friar Laurence. That’s a tough visual road to hoe (and I didn’t see the same thing in Vishneva’s subsequent ABT Juliet). Teuscher accomplished the same thing in a different way. As she thought and thought and thought, she lowered her head as if in despair, and moments thereafter raised it with her face transformed into one of hope. In a way, it’s similar to Giselle’s turning her back to the audience in the course of her “mad” scene, emerging thereafter as a person possessed. Very nicely done.
As with Hurlin, a solid component of Teuscher’s success was her Romeo, Aran Bell (the “hunky” Romeo I referred to above). I once referred to Bell as “the franchise,” and still believe that to be the case. At this point in his career he’s at the top of his game (although there always seems to be a new step added to the measurement ladder as he continues to grow with each performance) – in execution, characterization, partnering ability, and any other facet of a performance one can conjure. As nitpicky as I tend to be, I can’t find any nits to pick in his performance – except maybe that his Romeo was a bit too perfect.
The “Shevchenko/ Forster” cast:
Saturday afternoon’s team proved as accomplished as the others, but I’d describe the impact differently. With no diminution of the essential passion and emotional transparency, this pairing came across to me as the most cerebral. That is, one could almost see the decisions being made and executed in order to provide the utmost detail to both the choreographic execution and the characterization.
Though far from actually being too mature for the role, or too tall, Shevchenko projects those qualities more than the other Juliets I saw in this run. Consequently, I thought those factors would preclude my enjoying her performance because they didn’t conform to my “ideal” Juliet. As I’ve had the pleasure of admitting frequently, she convincingly proved me wrong.
Shevchenko conveyed a thoroughly youthful Juliet. She accomplished this, despite not seeming to conform to an ideal, the way it has to be done – through acting and nuance on top of exemplary execution, to which she added that sense of intelligence that she wore on her sleeve as she melded herself to the role. Her reaction to first meeting Paris was more like Hurlin’s than Teuscher’s: respectively, not quite as immediately unreceptive to Paris’s touch, but not at all as happy for the attention– maybe “wary” would be the most accurate. Every nuance from that point forward looked exactly right, and planned to the nth degree to exude as youthful and innocent an appearance as possible – and her choreographic execution appeared flawless and was always convincing. And she took her “prayer” before she gulped Friar Laurence’s poisonous potion, something that every Juliet does, to a level of visual expression that exceeded, in quality and expressed sincerity, any such brief moment I’ve previously seen (or even imagined from Lane, who was consistently and inexplicably denied the role opportunity). And although Shevchenko’s “edge of the bed” scene didn’t show as much of a sense of sudden recognition as others (no “light bulb” went off; instead, with no change in demeanor, at the appropriate musical cue she suddenly bolted from the bed), as was the case last year, it worked for her.
I have a couple of criticisms, but they’re minor (and not really criticisms of her). When she emerged from the wings to meet Friar Laurence and marry Romeo (Act II, Scene II), to my eyes she just didn’t successfully convey the sense of youth that I’ve seen from other Juliets and that she’d demonstrated in other scenes – and on her, that memorable costume looked too long and somewhat frumpy, and emphasized the grey in it more than the blue. And in the balcony scene, where other Juliets leap from the steps onto the stage floor, she didn’t leap. But it appeared that at that moment in the music where the leap would have happened, the leg that would have initiated that leap wasn’t on the step – the other leg was, but a leap from that other leg would have appeared more awkward and potentially dangerous. So, in a wise decision, she scrapped the leap and just kept going down the steps – with no registration on her face of anything amiss. [I said these were minor.]
As was the case with the other Juliets, her Romeo, Thomas Forster, contributed mightily to Shevchenko’s success. Forster was a different kind of Romeo: where Bell was hunky and Royal was boyish in demeanor, Forster was an elegant Romeo. He was no less ardent than the others, but whatever he danced came across smooth as silk; this Romeo was to the manor born.
But “elegant” doesn’t mean “superior.” He fit with his Mercutio and Benvolio, and more importantly with Shevchenko. His acting was consistent with the other Romeos, but his execution, to my eye, was on another level – closer to Bell’s – while concurrently exhibiting the obvious. albeit underlying, intelligence of characterization to match Shevchenko’s. For example, the ballon he achieved during his solos was exceptional; he was a Romeo who could fly. I found his performance to be fascinating, in addition to being accomplished. [An aside: in Tuesday’s performance, Forster played Tybalt… which meant, in the “duel” in the final scene in Act II, he wielded the sword against that performance’s Romeo, Bell. Here, he was the Romeo. As I watched, I couldn’t help but envision Forster dueling with himself.]
The Trenary/ Cornejo cast:
Expressions of emotion, passion, impetuousness, and determination are essential components of a MacMillan Juliet. Even though every other Juliet I saw during this run displayed these emotions at one point or another throughout the course of the ballet, Trenary’s Juliet took those emotions to another level – close to being melodramatic, but never crossing that line. And, as with Hurlin, the youthfulness that I consider crucial radiates from within – as does the evolving sensuality, which is a silent component of her character from the moment she first sees Romeo. With Trenary, that sensuality radiates as much from her visual presence on stage as it radiates from within, and it comes across as thoroughly natural.
I appreciated Trenary’s role debut a year ago, but I had several criticisms then – all but one of which have now been successfully addressed. [I still think her “edge-of-the-bed” scene needs amplification, but that’s about it.] At present, hers is a slightly different Juliet from Hurlin’s – Hurlin’s role debut generated awe as well as transcendent excellence; Trenary’s generated excitement, as well as a continuing interest in what her Juliet will do from one moment to the next.
It goes without saying, but needs to be said, that Trenary’s execution was exemplary throughout (though, to me, the choreography didn’t quite “sing” the way it did in Shevchenko’s rendering), and aside from what I’ve already addressed, her characterization was spot on.
For her Romeo, Cornejo, this appeared to be a more difficult performance than his earlier outings this season. While he maintained a boyish character and paid ardent attention to Trenary’s Juliet throughout, to my eye it looked somewhat forced. And although he executed the choreography well, it didn’t have the flair that was a component of his earlier performances this season, or the same strength. Simply put, to me he looked tired (understandably, given his lead role performances in each ballet in this run) and not at his best. That being said, his execution, though at times lacking a pure arabesque line or leaps that were as high as others, was more than satisfactory –highlighted by his circle leaps (jetés en manège) and by his unbridled assault on Tybalt after Tybalt had killed Mercutio – and his stage relationship with Trenary was emotionally credible, which may be the most critical ingredient for a Romeo.
The Mercutios, the Tybalts, and other featured performances:
Part of what made Cornejo’s performance somewhat less impressive than usual was the result of circumstances not within his control. Being shorter than his Mercutio and Benvolio was an unfortunate reality, but being at least equaled by one of them, if not surpassed in youthful vigor and quality of execution, was more significant. I’m alluding to Jake Roxander’s Mercutio.
In my review of ABT’s 2023 Giselle performances, I began with a discussion of the impression made by Roxander in the Peasant Pas de Deux, and advised any reader to catch one of his Mercutios. It wasn’t for nothing that I gushed so unapologetically or so confidently predicted the future. I’ve seen superbly-executed Mercutio performances over the years (including, as I recall, from Cornejo), but nothing I’ve seen previously, including the two other excellently-performed Mercutios I saw during this run (Tyler Maloney on Wednesday afternoon, and Carlos Gonzalez in the other two performances, each a NYC role debut), was as accomplished and as exciting as Roxander’s in Saturday night’s performance (he debuted in the role two nights earlier). While Maloney and Gonzalez added very fine characterization to their commendable execution, Roxander’s was from another ballet-dancing planet, adding movement nuances (the way he carried his head, or bent backward at appropriate points, or added additional turns after it seemed no more could be squeezed out) that were breathtaking in their clarity and daring.
And although Mercutio is supposed to be overly caffeinated, Roxander added another character quality to his Mercutio: a level of smirky braggadocio that I think no other Mercutio would even attempt, but which Roxander carried out while maintaining a thoroughly commendable – and endearing – quality. It was an astonishing performance, and one that the full-house audience clearly recognized as such.
As I watched Roxander, I thought that he’d have been the perfect partner for Trenary – each projects as somewhat edgy and can take their performances to a more audacious-than-usual level. Roxander has already proven that he can handle whatever choreography is required of a Romeo, and that he can also act. But one of the performance components that Roxander has not yet demonstrated (at least based on what I’ve seen this season) is his partnering ability. [He did well in the Peasant Pas, but that’s not the same thing as partnering a Juliet.] But when he clears that hurdle and gets cast in a leading role, I suggest starting the line queue several days before ticket sales begin.
The role of Tybalt has undergone considerable revision since ABT acquired the rights to perform MacMillan’s ballet. At first, the emphasis was on his nastiness, and, in the climactic Act II scene, his alcohol-infused viciousness. The role appears to have been toned down in recent years, with far less of an accent on either quality. I think making Tybalt appear more human may be seen as admirable, but a measure of dramatic character (and irresponsibility) has been lost in the process.
Nevertheless, two of the Tybalts during this run stood out from the other two I saw.
Adding immeasurably to the impact of Saturday evening’s performance was its Tybalt, Joo Won Ahn. From the first moment he appeared, this Tybalt restored significant nastiness to the role. Maybe it was, at least in part, the moustache that made him look meaner (and older than he would normally appear), but it was Ahn’s demeanor and movement quality as well that made him appear particularly fearsome. Those eyes pierced through the air and every character around him; his pushes (of Romeo after being unmasked in Act I) looked substantial enough to have knocked Romeo to the stage floor; and his swordplay was a degree more aggressive than others.
On Wednesday afternoon, Roman Zhurbin’s Tybalt was very finely done as well. Zhurbin probably has performed more Tybalts than any of the other dancers now at ABT, and he’s honed it to its essence (as he also did when he played Lord Capulet at other performances this season). An older-looking Tybalt than others (which is not a criticism), Zhurbin’s Tybalt was also nasty – with an added quality of cunning that made his Tybalt yet more dangerous. And instead of gulping a drink at the top of the steps in the concluding scene in Act II, he slobbered it front and center (well, a little upstage), making intoxication a component, though not a main ingredient, of his portrayal.
As for the other Tybalts, while Forster in Tuesday’s performance wore the role well, it was, to me, hampered by the very qualities that made his Romeo as fine as it was. And Duncan Lyle’s on Saturday afternoon started out well (i.e., sufficiently mean), but it didn’t carry through to Act II.
The Three Harlots, who in this production have considerable (and exuberant) dancing and acting obligations, all delivered fine portrayals. The trio of Isadora Loyola, Scout Forsythe, and Betsy McBride carried the roles on Tuesday and Saturday afternoon; Loyola, Erica Lall, and Hannah Marshall on Saturday evening; and Virginia Lensi, Lauren Bonfiglio, and Kiely Groenewegen at Wednesday afternoon’s performance. All were appropriately vibrant and over-the-top, with Loyola being the most venomous where the role and choreography called for it, and Lensi the most sparkling. Of the others, singling out one from another is difficult since each handled her assignment well, but, as was the case in her earlier roles this season, Lall’s portrayal was a surprisingly unrestrained focal point.
Benvolio here is not as significant a role as Mercutio, but it’s hardly an invisible one, and the character is involved in much of Acts I and II. Each of those I saw executed well and were barely distinguishable in quality. Sung Woo Han in Saturday evening’s performance delivered a perfectly acceptable Benvolio, but Patrick Frenette’s on Wednesday and Joseph Gorak’s on Tuesday and Saturday evening’s performance, in his final role with ABT, were more exuberant in their execution. I remember Gorak’s pre-Covid performances well. He was always an exemplary presence on stage, and it’s my understanding that he’s an exemplary human as well. I – and obviously, from his impromptu curtain call after his Saturday performance, his colleagues as well – wish him success in whatever his future endeavors may be.
Lady Capulet is a relatively minor role, but one that has major impact when her anguish at Tybalt’s death suggests a deeper than familial relationship. Stella Abrera returned from retirement to dance the role on Tuesday, and executed as well as I recall from her prior portrayals. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, Claire Davison’s was a more dramatic Lady Capulet, effective in all aspects of the role. Luciana Paris’s rendering on Saturday evening was equally dramatic, but added a consistently darker edge and a more obviously camouflaged relationship of some sort with Tybalt, evidenced by flashes of darting eyes and caring hands that I didn’t observe from the others. Nancy Raffa’s Nurse was pitch-perfect, as it always is.
As Rosaline, Chloe Misseldine’s rendering was as understatedly compelling as I recall in portrayals in the role by others (including Courtney Lavine’s on Wednesday), which I always thought was exactly as Rosaline was supposed to be … until I saw McBride’s rendering on Saturday evening: she lit up the role (within its narrative confines) with a far more animated and surprisingly refreshing presence than I recall seeing from anyone in the role previously … ever. And in what has now become the dual role of Escalus, the Prince of Verona (like a mayor, but more powerful and pompous) and Friar Laurence, Alexei Agoudine on Tuesday and Saturday evening, Lopez on Saturday afternoon, and Ruben Martin on Wednesday afternoon were highly (and appropriately) dominating as Escalus, but less convincing as Friar Laurence – perhaps a consequence of the legendary Frederic Franklin’s may performances in that role.
I can’t address each of the other featured performances, since there were so many, but all (including the unidentified “crippled beggar”) delivered their roles effectively.
I note also that there appear to have been some modifications made from prior performances (in addition to lowering Tybalt’s decibel level), including what seemed to be abbreviated and more perfunctory scenes where Friar Laurence was involved, and, more significantly, the inexplicable elimination of Juliet’s “duet” with the potion before drinking it. I recall the latter being a vivid component of Cynthia Harvey’s memorable Juliet, as well as others in the years following ABT’s acquisition of the production. Since these moments were omitted from each of the Juliet portrayals during this run, it must have been the product of a conscious company decision rather than the peculiarity of any one of the Juliets. This was an important component of that scene, far more effective than the solo steps forward and back that have replaced it, and should be restored.
Finally, I feel compelled to comment on the length of ABT’s current season, and its impact. It has two components.
Although I suspect that this season’s scheduling was locked in place before Susan Jaffe assumed the company’s artistic reins, and perhaps the original casting as well (although in this respect Jaffe may have had more input), it appears that mistakes made previously are not being repeated. There are fewer examples of leading roles being assigned multiple times to one ballerina, thereby depriving other qualified company dancers of such rare opportunities and audiences of the memories such performances (such as Lane’s) may have created, and no utilization of “guest artists” that in the past had the same impact. In other words, performing opportunities are being spread more widely (including among rising corps dancers as well as soloists), which is a distinct improvement from the immediate past and can only inure to the company’s benefit.
The second observation is as to the season’s shortened length. Eight-week Met seasons (and possibly even longer), which ABT has enjoyed previously, have now been cut in half. My understanding is that this was a Met decision in order to expand the opera’s performance season for whatever reason (probably financial, which is usually the case, rather than artistic). I thought initially that this was an extremely unfortunate development for ABT, and it certainly confines the breadth of its Met season to evening-length ballets that sell tickets and display company dancers and its productions optimally, but at the cost of greater choreographic opportunity and experimentation. [The mini autumn season at the Koch Theater, at least so far, hasn’t serve any useful function; but perhaps that will change going forward.]
But the longer season always seemed to result in dancer and audience exhaustion, to the point where a season’s conclusion came as something of a relief (and which led to surprising, and welcome, final-performance-of-the-season comedic idiosyncrasies). This was not the case this season – it ended on a high for both the dancers and ABT’s audiences. Perhaps in future negotiations with the Met over season length, splitting the difference (a six-week season) would be the optimal length, and one that would, or should, satisfy all concerns.
On to ABT’s 2023-24 performance season, whatever its components may be.