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BWW Review: ROMEO & JULIET at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Beautiful Production of the Timeless Romantic Tragedy

The classic ballet is available for streaming through May 26th

BWW Review: ROMEO & JULIET at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Beautiful Production of the Timeless Romantic Tragedy
Davit Karapetyan and Maria Kochetkova meet as the title characters in
San Francisco Ballet's production of Helgi Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet

In a word - gorgeous. The dancing, the design and especially the music - all gorgeous. For the penultimate program of its 2021 Digital Season, San Francisco Ballet is revisiting its sumptuous production of Helgi Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet, set to the incomparable Prokofiev score, presented in a top-notch 2015 video capture featuring a nigh on perfect cast. Not all narrative ballets transfer effectively to a video format, but happily this one does, due to its focus on interactions between pairs and small groups, and its relative lack of the kind of mathy, geometric corps de ballet set pieces that can look somewhat diminished and underwhelming on a TV or computer screen.

Tomasson made the ballet back in 1994 and chose to adhere closely to the timeless Shakespearean tale of young, star-crossed lovers from feuding Veronese families who fall deeply in love before meeting their tragic fate. His chief accomplishment here may be how deftly he tells the story, clearly and with a minimum of fuss. This is a rare full-length, traditional ballet that won't have you scrambling to reread the plot synopsis at intermission to figure out exactly what that fairy's curse was about or why we've been treated to a parade of faux-ethnic dances. We very clearly see every step in the progression of the romance between Romeo and Juliet, from their initial, electric meeting to their [spoiler alert?] entwined deaths in the Capulet family crypt. The title characters are also nicely grounded in their separate worlds from the beginning - he brashly strutting about with his wingmen in the public square, she cavorting childishly with her indulgent nurse in her sequestered palazzo - so that we can then see and feel their emotional growth and the consequences of their following the dangerously misguided advice of Friar Lawrence.

BWW Review: ROMEO & JULIET at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Beautiful Production of the Timeless Romantic Tragedy
(L to R) Pascal Molat as Mercutio, Davit Karapetyan as Romeo and Joseph Walsh as Benvolio
in San Francisco Ballet's production of Helgi Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet

Along the way, there are some wonderful passages, including a marvelous trio for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio on their way to the Capulet ball that shows off the kind of heedless bravado unique to those whose lives have not yet been touched by tragic consequence, the stately dancing at the Capulet ball as the two lovers weave their way through the dancers and gradually begin to realize this is more than mere infatuation, and the famous balcony scene set to arguably the most swoonily romantic music ever composed. The denouement in the dank Capulet crypt as a heartbreakingly lovely dawn arrives and the string section gently ascends to the heavens is perhaps the most achingly beautiful moment in the entire 3-act ballet. Tomasson's choreography is largely effective throughout, even if I wish the movement in the balcony scene soared more organically to meet the heights of the rapturous music. A prominently featured trio of street acrobats in Act 2 could also be given something more exciting and, well, truly acrobatic to do.

The sets and costumes by late master Jens-Jacob Worsaae look smashing here, even better than they do live in the theater. They have been so beautifully and sensitively lit by Thomas R. Skelton that the saturated colors glow as if possessed by a magical, inner light. In the first-act ballroom scene, the orangey-red costumes are offset by a stunning blue-violet vista so inviting that I longed to dive right into it. The costumes are also a visual delight in closeup, with the detail of every bead, swatch of lace and brocaded fabric shimmering in the shifting light.

I was also amazed by how effective the sword fighting sequences were, even when photographed at close distance. They had none of the "missed-him-by-a-mile" staginess that is so often the case with theatrical battles, and in fact at certain points had me concerned that the dancers were actually in danger of seriously wounding each other. [Not to worry - during one of the intermission breaks, fight scene co-choreographer Martino Pistone helpfully explains just how carefully choreographed and meticulously rehearsed each movement is!]

BWW Review: ROMEO & JULIET at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Beautiful Production of the Timeless Romantic Tragedy
An airborne Maria Kochetkova as Juliet shares a playful moment with Anita Paciotti as her Nurse
in San Francisco Ballet's production of Helgi Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet

Of course, none of the above would matter a damn if the dancing weren't equally transporting, which it is across the board here. Standout performances include Pascal Molat and Joseph Walsh as Romeo's besties, Mercutio and Benvolio. Both dancers possess astonishing technical abilities, but they also know how to use their technique in service of creating fully-rounded characters. They're dashing young men exulting in the first flush of young adulthood, perhaps a tad too impressed with themselves, and constantly on the prowl for a good time. Molat as Mercutio has a particularly complicated death scene that goes from light comedy to brazen over-confidence to the dawning realization that he has been fatally wounded. Molat makes all of this palpable without letting his dancing suffer. Also, a word of praise for Anita Paciotti's Nurse. It's the kind of character role that can easily be reduced to either a cypher of benign goodwill or an accretion of comic schtick. Paciotti instead invests the role with real heart and humanity. Just look at the way she melts when she comes to the realization that her charge is truly, deeply in love with Romeo. She serves as a proxy for the audience, allowing us to see the burgeoning romance through her eyes.

BWW Review: ROMEO & JULIET at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Beautiful Production of the Timeless Romantic Tragedy
Maria Kochetkova as Juliet and Davit Karapetyan as Romeo in a tender pas de deux
from San Francisco Ballet's production of Helgi Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet

And finally, there is no point really in telling this tale without distinctive performers in the title roles. Davit Karapetyan makes a dashing Romeo, dancing with flair and understated elegance in his first-act, character-establishing solos. He is then beautifully in-synch with Maria Kochetkova as Juliet from the balcony scene on. Kochetkova is stunning throughout - so girlish and untroubled at the beginning, then ineluctably drawn to the charismatic Romeo before tentatively exploring this wondrous new relationship and eventually giving herself over to him with complete abandon. The scene in Juliet's bedroom where she struggles over her decision whether or not to take the sleeping potion is a masterclass in how to act out a scene through movement alone. We can read every shifting emotion on her face and body as she makes her fateful decision. In the final crypt scene, Kochetkova's hopeful awakening only to find Romeo already dead beside her is truly heartbreaking.

BWW Review: ROMEO & JULIET at San Francisco Ballet Delivers a Beautiful Production of the Timeless Romantic Tragedy
Maria Kochetkova soars as Juliet, with Ricardo Bustamante as Lord Capulet
in San Francisco Ballet's production of Helgi Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet

This lovely production is available for streaming through May 26th. SFB's 2021 Digital Season will conclude - all too soon! - with Swan Lake beginning May 20th. For further information and to purchase tickets, visit www.sfballet.org or call (415)865-2000.

All photos by Erik Tomasson


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