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About the Change

American Ballet Theatre

‘Romeo and Juliet’

July 2009
New York, Metropolitan Opera House

by Reese Thompson

© Rosalie O'Connor

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Like any type of theatre, Ballet is a contract between performer and audience. Often when we hear a comic refer to a “good” crowd, it usually means the audience is supplying a sufficient amount of attention and energy from which he can draw upon to bolster his performance. Theatre (not just ballet) is like a waltz where the artists on stage lead the audience around the floor a few times. If it was a good performance, we (the audience) leave the dance floor slightly dizzy but exhilarated. This is also true for ballet, where the emotion and excitement of an audience responding collectively to great artistic and acrobatic feats can create a sort of electrical current between performer and spectator. And since a lack of energy from the crowd can often sap the energy of artists on stage, a review of a performance is, implicitly, a review of the audience. Which is why I’m sorry to have to begin by saying how incredible it is that anyone, whether they’re watching a comic perform in a bar or sitting in the orchestra section of the Metropolitan Opera, would ever answer their cell phone during a performance.

This is what happened during the first act of ABT’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Actually it happened twice. And it was the same woman. I suppose it can happen. I myself, a card carrying Wagnerian, once received a call during those heart-stopping climatic moments of “Die Walkure.” I should mention that my ringtone at the time, Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’, meshed surprisingly well with Wagner’s Magic Fire Music - though not everyone thought so. Needless to say, I was mortified. So I take it for granted, whenever someone’s phone rings, that it simply must have slipped that person’s mind, and wait patiently for them to fish out their mobile device and shut it off. I don’t, however, expect the next thing I hear to be: “Hello?” Even after a blitzkrieg of some of the most violent shushing I’ve ever heard in my life, I swear I thought I heard the lady-in-question continue by saying: “Sure, I can talk. I’m just at the ballet.” Joking aside, the culprit looked well past the age of knowing better and even seemed unapologetic when approached by an usher. I wish I could say that this was the only incident of inappropriate audience noise at the ballet.

Moving on, American Ballet Theatre opened its final week of performances at the Met with Kenneth MacMillian’s "Romeo and Juliet," boasting as good a cast as the company can muster these days. Diana Vishneva, in her yellow dress, looks every bit the fourteen-year-old while it’s practically redundant for Marcelo Gomes to play a character who is actually named “Romeo.” Their scenes together were exceptional. Both Vishneva and Gomes seemed to drop their guard (as well as their egos) to suggest a unity of intention that was quite impressive.

In the balcony pas de deux, Vishneva and Gomes were not so much Shakespeare’s tragic teens but a couple of kids discovering themselves as they discover each other. Gomes circled the stage with a series of grand jetés and - what looked like – double turns in the air. What starts as adolescent affectation (like a peacock showing off his feathers) becomes Romeo’s way of pouring himself out to her, relating to her in a way that he cannot relate to others. And when it’s her turn, he “listens” raptly to her delighted modest steps. At the same time, they are constantly at the brink of sexual arousal, something that frightens Juliet and makes her hesitate. At the climax of the pas, Vishneva catapults herself at him, executing a half turn in midair, and is caught ably by Gomes, who stops her momentum so completely that she seems to go still even as her leg extends back and her dress flutters. Normally this move is softer, as though Juliet were merely tossing herself into a big cushion. I’ve never seen it done as dynamically before. Vishneva’s Juliet literally throws herself at him. It’s a striking effect, an option available to only the strongest Romeos and boldest Juliets.

Fortunately Juliet is a role that perfectly suits Diana Vishneva’s impetuous style and thin, limber frame. Her body doesn’t have a classical line; her line is more of a curve and the flow of energy that passes through her can be stunning in certain roles. I just wish she could control that energy a bit more. Her penchant for throwing momentum behind everything she does was evident in her first entrance, when the working leg of her spitfire quick arabesque penchées were whipped back over her head with such force that I thought she would tip over onto Susan Jones’ lavishly draperied Nurse. Her best, purest and most honest dancing came in her interactions with Gomes, where her natural tendency for total abandon met its match in Gomes’ exceptional partnering.

I don’t know if I would call her a “great” actress though. While there is undoubtedly something in Juliet’s dilemma that ignites some truthfulness in her, Vishneva is not yet well acquainted with the powers of subtly, and her poison monologue was all over the place. The relentless clicking of her toe shoes was a bit distracting as well. However, her headstrong, rebellious vision of Juliet was natural and uncalculated, and reflected well in her dancing.


Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes in Romeo and Juliet
© Rosalie O'Connor

I don’t think that Romeo is Marcelo Gomes’ best role. He dances it well, and plays the romantic lead like a pro. However, all the various aspects of Romeo’s character don’t seem to come together in Gomes’ portrayal. That battement-like step, or “swordplay,” meant to depict Romeo’s rather innocent attitude towards violence (while also foreshadowing the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt) is really not an attractive step and is a bit too literal for my taste. Gomes comes across in many of these early scenes like a bad boy prankster, a kind of Zack Morris from ‘Saved by the Bell’ meets Danny Zuko from ‘Grease’ as played by Cary Grant. This, of course, is being nitpicky. A more boyish Romeo might not have executed the lifts and catches with the same ease.

Herman Cornejo’s Mercutio has upstaged the Romeos of nearly every ABT male principle since he first added it to his repertory. The only Romeo I’ve ever seen come close to challenging his supremacy in the Market Place scene was Angel Corella, and that was a few years ago. Cornejo predictably accomplished the same feat for this performance, while seeming to exert the minimal amount of effort.

Veronika Part, stepping in last minute, as Lady Capulet was regal and yet shattering in her big scene over Tybalt’s body. There seemed to be more concentrated sexual chemistry between Part’s Lady Capulet and Tybalt’s corpse than between Romeo and Juliet. There was very little ambiguity about Tybalt’s relationship to his aunt in Part’s playing of the scene. Gennadi Saveliev, ABT’s resident villain, was an oily yet complex and pitiful Paris. Susan Jones and Frederic Franklin were effective as well, especially 95 year old Franklin, who got one of the biggest ovations of the night. One thing about Frederic Franklin is the way he seems to always be listening to the music, without obviously responding to it. It makes the audience listen even harder too.

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