Romeo and Juliet

American Ballet Theatre

at the Auditorium Theatre, September 26-October 1

Sexual passion is a physical thing–something you feel in your gut, your groin, and the tips of your fingers–and dance is the perfect vehicle to convey it. In a pas de deux, when the ballerina lifts her chin, arches her back, and is swiftly carried upward in the strong arms of her partner…say no more. Dance sidesteps words and communicates directly to the flesh.

And when it comes to romance and passion, no story has endured like Romeo and Juliet. Ballet choreographers have staged over two dozen versions since 1785, and for good reason: as James Monahan wrote in the notes for a 1984 staging by the Royal Ballet, “Romeo and Juliet…is essentially a lyrical Pas de deux, and lyrical Pas de deux are ballet’s home ground, its prime business.” In the 20th century, over a dozen versions of Romeo and Juliet have been choreographed to Sergey Prokofiev’s powerful 1935 score, originally conceived to accompany a (thankfully, never produced) ballet with a happy ending. By the time choreographer Leonid Lavrosky premiered his version at the Kirov in 1940, Prokofiev had cut the happy ending and added dark undertones to create an orchestral piece as rich and heavy as a 14th-century tapestry. Since then, choreographers such as Frederick Ashton, Rudolf Nureyev, and Michael Smuin have set ballets to Prokofiev’s music.

American Ballet Theatre uses Kenneth MacMillan’s version, choreographed for the Royal Ballet in 1965. His is a lyrical, sensuous, dramatic dance, and ABT consistently performs it with elan. The company’s version (which MacMillan supervised during his tenure as ABT artistic associate, from 1984 to 1989) plays beautifully with the heaviness and lightness of Prokofiev’s music. Costumes and scenery by Nicholas Georgiadis are suitably sumptuous, even overbearingly heavy; yet MacMillan’s choreography bursts with bravado leaps and swordplay, passionate kisses and lingering looks.

Few balcony scenes equal MacMillan’s when it comes to exploring first love. This is ballet, remember, so the young lovers toss no sweet words to each other. They dance. Juliet rushes down from her balcony, then slows when she gets closer to Romeo. In a silly gesture, she puts her hand on her breast, places Romeo’s there, then blushes and skitters away. Thus begins one of the most beautifully choreographed renditions of lovemaking ever to grace the stage. Juliet, wearing a dress of diaphanous flesh-colored silk (the only light and airy costume in the entire production), seems to float around Romeo. In one particularly poignant moment, when Romeo lifts her above his head and she arches her back, her shoulders curve behind his head while her waist curves around his neck and her legs drop demurely in front of his torso. For one brief moment she seems to embrace him with her entire body, although her arms and hands barely touch him.

But no matter how gorgeous the choreography, a pas de deux won’t work unless both dancers live entirely inside the movement. And this is no small feat given the rigors of MacMillan’s style. In their debut performances as Juliet and Romeo, Paloma Herrera and Keith Roberts were nothing short of radiant. Technically, Herrera has proven herself a consummate dancer in her first year as a principal with ABT. But performing Juliet she also proves herself a respectable actor: Herrera’s Juliet is a girl in the process of becoming a woman. Transitions are painful processes in life, and Herrera skillfully juxtaposes Juliet’s childish fear with her very adult passion for Romeo.

Not only does Roberts have the youthful good looks and vitality necessary to a romantic hero, he also has the technical and theatrical abilities to make his Romeo believable and attractive. In a lot of romantic ballets the man often serves as little more than a prop for the woman, his sole role to lift her when she needs lifting and to put her down when she needs putting down. But MacMillan’s choreography requires an unusual amount of dancing from the men. Romeo takes center stage often, executing winsome leaps and pirouettes one after the other, and he also engages in some complicated swordplay. Roberts deftly executed all his swashbuckling moves, and his Romeo contained a depth of character rarely found in male balletic roles. One senses that Roberts’s Romeo, like Herrera’s Juliet, is nearing adulthood, struggling with man-size problems that would have been simply games before he met Juliet.

Ethan Brown played a compellingly angry Tybalt, and Johan Renvall gave his all to the role of the gallant but foolish Mercutio (and skillfully maneuvered through one of the longest death scenes in the history of theater). In lesser hands, MacMillan’s dramatic choreography could easily have slipped into melodrama. But American Ballet Theatre seems to understand the subtleties of this ballet, consistently delivering a strong production genuinely worthy of a standing ovation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Martha Swope.