Romeo and Juliet at the ABT

Romeo and Juliet
June 18, 2012
American Ballet Theatre

Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet is a ballet I haven't seen for several seasons. When I was a ballet newbie, it was perhaps my favorite ballet, but as the years passed, I kind of fell out of love with it. I found much of the evening to be long and without much dancing, and it takes extremely charismatic dancers in the lead roles to make the ballet work. When I saw Romeo and Juliet again last night, I immediately felt ashamed for my recent snobbery towards the work. It remains one of the best dance adaptations of Shakespeare's love story, and I had forgotten that yes, the work can be ponderous and there are long stretches without much dancing, but the choreography for the lead couple is consistently rewarding. I particularly loved seeing the moon-shaped lifts of the balcony pas de deux again (see below for a picture).

Of course, last night the Romeo and Juliet were David Hallberg and Natalia Osipova. These two dancers are perhaps technically, the most amazing dancers dancing anywhere currently. When they take off for a jump, there's never a question of whether they'll get in the air. The question is only, "How high and how long?" When they turn, there's never a question of if they'll complete the revolution. The question is only, "How many?" That being said, the roles of Romeo and Juliet, while they certainly require technique and stamina, also require dancers of great dramatic skill. I was worried before the curtain rose that Hallberg and Osipova, who are essentially sunny technical wunderkinds, wouldn't give the roles the right dramatic weight.

Well, thankfully, I was wrong. First of all, Hallberg and Osipova's extraordinary jumping abilities actually sharply etched the characters of the young lovers. These were free spirits, not meant to be bogged down by the protocol of Renaissance-era Verona. When they flew across the stage in a great, gravity-defying leap, their eventual tragedy became all the more poignant. What's more, they had that important-but-elusive chemistry. Although Hallberg is all blond, blue-eyed, long-limbed beauty, and Osipova is one of ballet's small, intense, dark-haired dynamos, they seemed like kindred spirits in their sunniness, their optimism, their yearning for real love. So when they fell in love, it was like, "Of course!" Their balcony scene inspired such a ferocious ovation that they had to take a curtain call afteer the act ended (usually never done). 

They weren't perfect. For one, Hallberg came onstage as an eternally sunny golden-boy, whereas Romeo is actually supposed to be immaturely moping for Rosaline. But in terms of conveying ardour and pure lovability, Hallberg was magnificent. And those lines! He added to that effect cleverly by billowing his extra-long cape whenever he sailed offstage -- the cape almost was a secondary character. Juliet is a relatively new role for Osipova, and she hasn't mastered some of the dramatic tricks more experienced Juliets will use. For one, the original Juliet, Galina Ulanova, made a great effort to run across the stage naturally, not like "ballet running," but like actual girlish running. Osipova hasn't quite mastered the "stage running" yet. Nor has she quite mastered the coughing and retching after Juliet takes the potion, or the final stab to the heart. I'm not saying that she did a bad job, just that I've seen more experienced Juliets make more of those moments. But at the same time, there was no falseness to Osipova's portrayal. There was a consistency in her characterization -- from the first, this was a bubbly, high-spirited young lady who was full of joy and love, but also a strong-willed rebel. When she was forced to dance with Paris, she deliberately conveyed her disgust with the situation by actually walking semi-off-pointe. Since the ballerina standing on pointe is such an iconic image, there was something subversive (and thus wonderful) about her doing this: "I am so disgusted with you that I, the greatest ballerina in the world, won't even go on pointe in your presence." And when she made her final slump in her tomb, the tragedy was that in such a short time, someone so full of life was now lifeless. Bravo to both David and Natalia.

The ABT assembled its A-cast lineup for the secondary roles. Herman Cornejo nearly stole the show as Mercutio. His explosive jumps with multiple air revolutions wowed the crowd, and the short, stocky Cornejo made the perfect foil for the uber-danseur-noble lines of Hallberg. It's kind of a shame that Cornejo's career has been so hampered by his lack of height -- there are some petite ballerinas on ABT's roster that I could imagining dancing with him, but for some reason management seems reluctant to pair him with anyone but Xiomara Reyes. Danil Simkin was underused in the smallish role of Benvolio, but the slight, blond Simkin was a great companion for Hallberg's Romeo -- he looked like Romeo's little brother. Alexandre Hammoudi (Paris), tall and handsome, looked like he was doing a test-run for Romeo (set for this Wednesday's matinee).  Sascha Radetsky was a menacing, truly hateful Tybalt. Kristi Boone thankfully toned down the hysterics as Lady Capulet (it's amazing how many ballerinas I've seen totally camp up this part).

The orchestra was really just awful. The horns were out of tune, and at one point, the strings seemed to have pitch issues as well. They slugged through Prokofiev's intense score with little poetry or feeling.

But really, this was Osipova and Hallberg's night. At the end of the evening, the bowed deeply to the house, still arm-in-arm, to the deeply appreciative audience. Despite the deference they showed to the audience, there was an undeniable confidence and satisfaction in their faces. Their faces had an almost post-coital flush of happiness, like "I know I was magnificent." Yes, you were.


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