The score Sergei Prokofiev wrote for Romeo & Juliet includes some of the most sublime and memorable music in the classical realm, perfectly capturing the tensions of Shakespeare’s brilliant story. Every achingly beautiful love melody comes shaded with darkness–rapture is always edged with a hint of what is to come.
What could be more inevitable, then, than a fabulous Romeo & Juliet ballet? The score practically dictates the choreography. Or does it? Helgi Tomasson’s 1994 version of the story for the San Francisco Ballet (other "R&J’s" have been produced since the late 1700’s) features the requisite balcony and bedroom scene, the quick rise and fall of perfect love, and plenty of sword-fighting to boot. However, this is a full-length ballet without a corps, (although there are plenty of crowd scenes) and the lack of the usual opportunities for big group dancing, with all their patterns and prettiness, do take a toll on the overall impact.
Tomasson’s is basically a three-act ballet for two dancers, and the San Francisco Ballet is presenting four sets of Romeos and Juliets during the six performance run this spring. Each pairing features a danseur who can act, and a ballerina who can let her hair down. Yuan Yuan Tan, on opening night, is a gorgeous dancer with the right delicacy, girlishness and abandon, but she seems somehow limited, one-dimensional, you can’t quite believe that this girl would be impetuous enough to marry a guy she spots in a crowd. To fake her own death seems unimaginable. Yuri Possokhov, a veteran dancer, may have been upstaged choreographically by his friends, Mercutio and Benvolio, danced by Pascal Molat and Nicolas Blanc, but his acting skills are superb—he is able to convince, to love, to kill and to kill himself, with a characterization that is believable and heartbreaking. He even manages to make himself look ten years younger.
The rest of the production features opulent costumes and a multi-level set by Jens-jacob Worsaae, which isn’t taken advantage of as it might be. Tomasson, the company director as well as choreographer here, always takes pains to give his male dancers lots to do (perhaps making up for his years as a dancer for George Balanchine, who rarely paid any attention) so the sword fighting is elaborate and convincing. What is missing, however, is a motivation for all the antagonism between the Capulets and Montagues.
Perhaps it’s a little much to ask of a ballet version of Shakespeare, but there could be more poetry here, and less action. When all is said and done, however, any opportunity to watch excellent dancers moving through space to Prokofiev’s uber-romantic music is time well spent.