Bourrée Girl

Now with more italics

Posted in American Ballet Theatre, Classical ballet by bourreegirl on July 22, 2010

Marcelo Gomes and Diana Vishneva (courtesy

Eight shows a week can really wear you out—and that’s without taking a step on stage. Yes, I had to take time to recover from watching a solid week of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet at the Met. The fact that it’s eight different casts adds excitement but, like a sugar rush, drops you lower when a given cast isn’t working for you. You’ve seen better, tomorrow you may do so again, and until you do the music will sound hollow and the choreography will look like choreography. It’s not, you quickly realize, a matter of how many performances you’ve already seen; it’s whether the one you’re watching now can make you forget them.

That’s how I wound up leaving after the first act of Natalia Osipova’s much-anticipated debut as Juliet. The night before, I’d seen Irina Dvorovenko, whose arms gush with hyperextended histrionics but whose face doesn’t convey much distress beyond a doll-like pout of perturbation. When I noticed Osipova’s lips rounding into the same fetching little expression, my heart sank. By the time she sprinted up the balcony steps, her gymnast’s arms pumping friskily, I’d remembered about lunch. However powerful her jump, however lovely her feet and her partner, the hot young guest star didn’t make Juliet-sense to me.

Now, I’m becoming increasingly aware of how subjective this determination is. Where I see Bend It Like Beckham, some see Shakespeare. It’s terribly clear to me that some dancers whip up a windstorm on stage and others just don’t. Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes, who followed Osipova and Hallberg that evening, disturb the air. They trouble the water. It’s not debatable, surely. Is it?

Maybe it is. So for this last post on ABT’s summer season, let’s talk about something a little less emotional and more dissectable—not to mention more inclusive, bringing in a few more of the players in this story. A general question, then, for the characters and their coaches—I’m going to kind of splutter it, though, okay?—

When did the Capulets and the Montagues get so grabby?

Diana Vishneva was the only Juliet who didn’t seize Romeo’s shoulders in their first private encounter to warn him that someone was coming and steer him out of sight. (She’s never touched a man like this in her life; would she really do it now? I wouldn’t have at her age, and I was educated outside the home! With boys!) Romeo plants bold little kisses on Juliet’s naked shoulders, which seems pretty racy coming as it does before the “palm to palm” moment taken from the play, which mines the chaste touch of hands for erotic and spiritual significance before moving on to a meeting of lips. (In the 1966 film of the ballet, the gesture looks exploratory, chancy, as if he’s trying maybe for her cheek if she’ll allow it, or to whisper in her ear if she won’t.) And Romeo and his friends go after the poor Nurse’s bottom with an enthusiasm I don’t remember in the letter scene, scaled up from friendly-looking pinching or swatting to vicious grasping and shoving. Paris, whom I’ve always thought of as well-meaning, has become positively brutal toward Juliet, wrenching and yanking and insisting. (Grant DeLong was the gentle exception.)

Is all this really necessary? Has the . . . interpersonal physicality been amped up to correspond to some perceived audience expectation in the forty-five years since the ballet premiered?

Lord Capulet, I noticed, has abdicated some of his authority to regulate such matters. I had to watch the ballet three times before I even noticed the Nurse explaining to Juliet that her new boyfriend is a dreaded Montague—a rewarding moment to watch, if the Juliet is a thoughtful one and you’d like to see how she takes the news—because I was distracted by the father’s odd behavior on the other side of the stage. He’s come to investigate the problem Tybalt’s spotted: a stranger moving in on his daughter. But he’s staying calm. When Tybalt gives Romeo a little shove, Capulet intercedes with a warning gesture (“Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone”). Tybalt can’t resist pushing again, harder, and Capulet steps in again, more strongly (“He shall be endured. . . . I say he shall”). Or so I’ve seen in the past. What happens now is that Capulet positions himself just ahead of Tybalt, faces squarely into the wings and, stepping neatly in time with Tybalt, stares past the young men, impassive, while his nephew provokes his guest. The first shove happens right under Capulet’s nose, but he ignores it. Does he approve? Disapprove? He doesn’t say, but he keeps stepping in time. Same for the second shove; he’d have to turn his head left to even see it, and he’s keeping focused on whatever is off stage right. Only after three does he raise a hand in cold protest.

This seems like a dramatic opportunity wasted, a choice not made clear. Yes, Capulet could take Tybalt’s side while pretending impartiality, moving only belatedly and without sincerity to keep the peace. (It’s not in the play, but the ballet pretty much does away with the complexity of parental good will anyhow; this would be in keeping with later decisions.) But what we see is more bewildering than that. He goes blank, a human wall, advancing in dumb support of his aggressive ally instead of taking the lead as host and head of the family. The staging just doesn’t work with the patriarch’s dominating character.

(Speaking of choices made clear, dancers cast as Juliet would benefit from the opportunity to observe the musicians who provide the sound for the mandolin dance Juliet “plays,” and to choose one of their parts to mime on stage. Just one. And, since she is the only “player” on stage, it should probably be the one that comes in first. So that’s arpeggios.)

Of course, gamely acting away through the changing of the stars has been the corps de ballet. Romeo and Juliet doesn’t particularly showcase them, dressing them mainly in blendable brown smocks for the marketplace and massive headdresses and heavy gowns for the ballroom. And MacMillan’s choreography doesn’t flatter them; it’s arranged to convey a mood rather than to display virtuosity or even pleasing bodily shapes. But may I take a moment to acknowledge these dancers, who, whether in occasional featured roles like Cupid and Princess Florine or en masse (oh, The Sleeping Beauty’s leaping huntsmen!), provided welcome excitement during these eight weeks at the Met? Many went without an opportunity to stand out as individuals; nonetheless, let’s keep in mind that the dancers who waltzed or mazurka’d through the summer as anonymous guests at all the royal parties are truly elite performers, each capable of so much more than they’re allowed to show us. (Remember Devon Teuscher and Jose Sebastian from Ballet Builders? Astonishing dancers. Party guests.) One hopes they’ll each be granted their breakout opportunity, and are being nurtured toward that moment. Until then, ABT’s off season could mean a chance to see them in other venues. (Yes, freelancing: just when you thought a dancer’s life was hard enough. This article shines a light on one determined dancer—who saw the same shows I did, and didn’t carp in public.)


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