4 Buzzy ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Debuts, 1 Fainthearted Production
Posted June 15, 2018 4:22 p.m. EDT
Balletomanes care about dancers more than choreography — and American Ballet Theatre’s annual season at the Metropolitan Opera House is geared for balletomania. Most productions are given a weeklong block of performances, with different casts at each one.
Aisles in the theater are often animated, with keen debates about whether Friday’s cast could ever be as good as Tuesday’s. This week, a run of Kenneth MacMillan’s staging of “Romeo and Juliet” is representative: There has been chatter about two new Juliets, one new Romeo and a new Mercutio.
Ballets, however, matter more than dancers. This “Romeo,” set to Prokofiev’s three-act score and an international hit since it was first made in 1965, has been a company war horse since MacMillan staged it for Ballet Theatre (with minor revisions) in 1985. It has started, however, to show its age.
After 53 years you might expect no less; yet the main problem is not MacMillan’s ballet. Ballet Theatre itself is suddenly looking fainthearted and uncoordinated as a theatrical troupe. Many characterizations tend to lack opera-house power; they become a dutiful series of effects.
For months now, I’ve been wanting to hang signs saying “The eyes are the window of the soul” above dressing-room mirrors at Lincoln Center (not only, but especially, at Ballet Theatre). Too few dancers are using their eyes to address the various corners of the opera house; too many are aiming performances straight out as if at the rehearsal mirror.
MacMillan introduced his ballet with four casts of star-crossed lovers, giving leeway to individual interpretations. Nonetheless, he wanted reckless passion to dominate, with no conventional airs and graces. Romeo — a taxing role — appears extensively throughout all three acts, with both heroic partnering and expansive dance virtuosity. Juliet changes from an unworldly child, both bashful and playful, into an awakened sensualist whose violence of feeling initiates their wedding and impels the tragic decisions that lead to death.
The 19-year-old Aran Bell, making an astonishingly impressive debut as Romeo on Wednesday afternoon, is already right in almost every way. He’s tall — 6-foot-3 — without being gangly; youthfully impulsive without being immature; and lyrically supportive as a partner. Though his face doesn’t register well yet, that will fall into place once he is more used to the limelight. He danced the Balcony Scene solos assuredly, but without showing their musical point; some jumps in Act II, though well delivered, gave the wrong accents to the choreography. Nothing’s wrong here that can’t soon be fixed.
His Juliet, Devon Teuscher (also making her role debut), is a tall ballerina with a proud temperament and fabulous Katharine Hepburn cheekbones. When this Juliet sits motionless on the bed in Act III, pausing for thought before making her big run to Friar Laurence’s cell, the lift of her face, as if addressing destiny, made this potentially blank moment eventful. She’s a beautiful dancer capable of classicism, repose, lyricism and ardor. So far, though, this Juliet is a pencil sketch of what it may become: Only intermittently are we caught up in her thought process.
Stella Abrera, making her debut as Juliet at age 40 on Thursday evening, has longer experience in leading roles: She’s both refined and compelling. Often too refined, though; I kept noticing artfully ballerina-type effects — the slow pointing of a foot when walking, the polished angling of a wrist when held aloft in the air — in a part that calls for maximum naturalness.
A symptom of something larger absent at Ballet Theatre this season is Gillian Murphy’s Juliet. The role has been one of her finest for several years: Murphy’s finesse and power here are driven by passion and heroism. On Monday, she did much of it superbly — not least the wonderful plays with balance in the ballroom solo, tilting now forward on point, then back. Still, she was also holding back. There were moments when, in Juliet’s various runs and walks, it was distracting to note her experimenting with the texture of her footwork.
The handsome Cory Stearns, her Romeo, ought to be perfect for the role. Yet he lacks blaze, as if reluctant to sweep up the theater in the heartthrob rapture you expect him to exemplify. Will he one day sustain a three-act role with complete momentum from beginning to end? So far, I’ve never known him do so. By contrast, James Whiteside, Abrera’s Romeo, is far less of a dreamboat but a far more incisive temperament. He drives the action without hesitation or caution; and at every moment he takes the audience into his — and Romeo’s — changing thought.
Even more exemplary on Thursday was Arron Scott’s Mercutio. The complete stylishness of his dancing was only an incidental pleasure: wit, musicality, camaraderie, dramatic focus, exuberance and pathos were central. On Wednesday, the New York debut of Gabe Stone Shayer in the same role was impressive: less gleeful, with a touch more menace, only smudging minor details in the death scene. Daniil Simkin, who danced the role on Monday, has such panache and timing that the audience actually applauded his final moment — a sign, surely, that he was registering more charm than pathos.
It’s on the peripheries of these characters that the production has begun to look stale. Some interpreters of Lady Capulets hint, absurdly, that she’s having an incestuous affair with her nephew Tybalt; but when he dies, they make her lamentation an affair of mere show rather than tribal grief. Paris is an elegant role with marvelous costumes, so why did Thomas Forster employ the same lumbering walk he applies to inelegant characters? The three harlots are played tiresomely, without weight or seriousness. Act II is blighted by a crippled beggar who turns out not to be a cripple, yet reappears later with crutches after Tybalt has died.
In some details (notably Mercutio’s leading the Mandolin Dance, originally a divertissement), Ballet Theatre’s “Romeo” is actually better than that of the Royal Ballet in Britain, where it was first staged. But if MacMillan’s ballet is to endure, all its dramatic relationships need more continuity and oomph than are currently in evidence at Ballet Theatre.