Romeo and Juliet,  San Francisco Ballet
Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit
© Eric Tomasson

Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco Ballet

Score by Sergei Prokofiev

Choreography by Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director

San Francisco War Memorial Opera House

May 1-10, 2015

Sfballet.org

The simplicity of the three-theme Prokofiev score can beguile us into believing that Helgi Tomasson’s “Romeo and Juliet,” running at warp speed to conclude before the accomplished musicians go on overtime, loses complexity, much in the way Cinderella does her glass slipper, as she scurries to her coach before the stroke of midnight. Still, an argument could be made that as it trips over its own trappings, complexity is the ghost that haunts this ballet, and conspires to make it a challenge to mount in its surface reading: libretto, costumes, sets, staging, and stage combat. What lies beneath is also complex: casting, interpretation, acting, and the chemistry that lends definition to two lead characters. How they parry their fast-track individual development, in the face of universal adversity, determines whether they become the world’s iconic tragi-romantic couple — or not. Mercutio and Tybalt confront a tall order of relationship building — between them, with Romeo, Juliet, her parents, and the audience, who will have to “feel” them, if they are to mourn their deaths. Nurse must be a substantial counter-weight to parental gravitas that is bulldozing Juliet into a marriage of awesome inconvenience. If he is not to be remembered as half-amoeba, half-mannequin (as too often happens), Paris, before he realizes his own life’s value or lack of it, must sell himself as the factotum of expectation, fashioned out of manners, tradition, and formality. Steven Morse achieves this with uncommon dexterity.

The opening night performance marked Sarah Van Patten’s fifth time out as Juliet, and, strange as it may seem, she had to work against the Central Casting paradigm. She is young, pretty, coltish, self-acting, passionate, wily, and independent, and unfazed by what others may think of her choices. It might seem like a natural fit, but as a dead-ringer for the role, it can be hard to reconstruct the younger self, let alone onstage and in pointe shoes. Carlos Quenedit, a rugged Romeo, also fits the bill. As a well-trained Cuban dancer, he exudes self-assurance, but with the ever-churning inward contradiction of conflicted loyalties that feed feelings of both love and aggression. When we say that a couple has “chemistry,” we really mean that they are a sexy pair, but in this instance, to say that Van Patten and Quenedit share chemistry, is to notice how their self-conscious and self-styled approaches to their roles burnish and polish the resulting double-helix, one strand silver, the other gold.

The Jens-Jacob Worsaae Italian renaissance sets meet the War Memorial Opera House interior design in a subtle and curious trompe l’oeil. They run together as if one continuous duchy. Yet with all that happens on stage, there is no real inducement—or opportunity—for the dancers to reach out to the audience. Assorted clashes, clinches and poses, render the stage’s imaginary “fourth wall” more fortress than filter, and so the audience must lean in to keep up with the Cliff Notes-like actuation.

Fortunately, the secondary characters as much as the leads, make leaning in a pleasure. Taras Domitro, in theatrical bent and comic genius, is every bit the quintessential Shakespearean Pagliacci-like Mercutio, here in his exaggerated swagger, there in his drunken drape over the harlot’s shoulder. Anthony Vincent summons a Hotspurish temper coated by a frosty sang-froid. Vincent’s long, lean composure is the perfect springboard for the flash-point anger symbolizing all that is amiss in fair Verona. As Lady Capulet, Sofiane Sylve, is the blistering conservancy of what her personage must both guard and guard against. Val Caniparoli, as Lord Capulet, the transmission belt for carrying an unwanted commodity — arranged marriage — guns his engine until it finally gives out.

The tinkling “French” Acrobats interlude reaches beyond the intricacies of its staging to win audience approval, as three dancers, Norika Matsuyama, Francisco Mungamba and Wei Wang, in two appearances, bring pyrotechnic steps into sync over the baroque music.

In the past, I have found Tomasson’s 1994-created balcony scene frustrating to watch. It was under-lit, and rather than fulfill the text’s imperative to bring Romeo and Juliet closer together, it put distance between them. It’s a pleasure to see substantial changes that bring the scene into its own. They now use the space between them to tantalize and enthrall each other. Quenedit grabs hold of it with all the acquittal and entitlement necessary to transform his character from boy to man, courting Juliet with placed turns and grand gestures that spool out quantities of confidence in her direction. They become a swirling duo that turns rondure into the language of love, punctuated by wildly ecstatic lifts “en tournant.” Remember how in early adolescence, we’d meet the accusatory looks and words of our parents with the universal defense, “But we were just talking . . .”? “Just talking” is of course, the warm-up for the steamier “Just kissing.” “Just talking” plants the carrot seed of affection. That is precisely what this balcony scene is meant to deliver and does. The lovers’ pas de deux ends with them facing one another, arms circling each other’s waists, backs stretching in and out, opening and closing like petals of a single flower.

Act III tightens the noose. After Romeo and Juliet’s elopement, when the breaking light from yonder window wakes her from her actual wedding night with Romeo, Juliet finally and decisively refuses to marry Paris. In this scene with Lord and Lady Capulet, Van Patten has another transition to make. She is not just the mature woman who knows her own heart, but now possesses the confidence to make her desires manifest. She stands her ground, but her compelling singular defense, “I don’t love Paris,” falls on ears fatally deafened by the patriarchal imperative. Her back suddenly stiffens into a posture of full-out resistance, but she is a woman, and the ground upon which to stand and fight by needs drops out from under her. Lord Capulet drags her into society’s plan, while Lady Capulet stands quaking behind him. Crumpled, and abandoned by her parents as Nurse looks on helplessly, Juliet sees just how alone she is in this House of Capulet. She straightens her back again, this time with a new resolve launching a destiny that reaches beyond her grasp. She swallows the sleep-inducing elixir, and by the time Juliet’s Friends arrive to chirp over her trousseau, she is looking by all appearances, dead. With these character advances, Van Patten captains the story into its final harbor, never letting go the Juliet temperament: rebellious, steely, and focused on what her heart is set on. It’s all about spine, and at the end of the day, Van Patten has got Juliet’s back.

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.