A sparkling collection of dazzling costumes graced the stage at the San Francisco Ballet’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” on March 9 at the War Memorial Opera House. Clad in stately garments and looking the part of grand, theatrical dancers, the corps de ballet strolled daintily across a breathtakingly ornate set. The first few dances made for an enticing lead-in, as their elegance and style drew the audience into the ballet version of Verona and the pit musicians gave their all to tastefully frame the scene.
Despite this, it quickly became evident that the dancers only looked the part and had no engaging part to play. Though the overall spectacle was aesthetically pleasing, a combination of lifeless choreography and listless execution stamped on whatever hopes one might have had for an enthralling experience. The introductions to main characters like Tybalt, Benvolio and Mercutio bore little indication of skillful dancing or emotional investment. Apart from a handful of compelling leaps, these were cursory, safe segments performed with minimal energy — a deplorable outcome for the principal dancers and soloists of a world-class ballet company.
Even Romeo and Juliet’s first interactions fell remarkably flat. It is a wonder that such poignant, romantic scenes can be danced in such lackluster fashion. Juliet (danced by Sarah Van Patten) appeared disengaged, and not in a playing-hard-to-get sort of way. Her movements were exceedingly mechanical, her physicality restrained, and though her form was visibly polished, she showed little more passion than a middle-aged nun. Meanwhile, Romeo (danced by Pierre-Francois Villanoba) suffered from the opposite conundrum. Always a little too self-important and eager, his dancing appeared busy and off-balance rather than fluid and free flowing.
Elsewhere, it was a sign of tiresome choreography that even the furious fight scenes between the Montagues and Capulets were uninspiring. Instead of taking a rapid, pulsating pace, Mercutio and Tybalt’s clash was merely a lethargic brandishing of swords. One sat beseeching them for more, seeking an ominous leap or a whirlwind of twirls — there are so many possibilities for a ballet fight scene — but received nothing more than harmless, below-par fencing. Moreover, Mercutio trivialized a grave moment by taking an age to die: In a piece of unintentionally hilarious choreography, he staggered across the stage melodramatically for several minutes before finally giving up his moment in the spotlight.
Throughout, the ballet was severely lacking in urgency and drama. A story of such woe must be danced with instinct, impulse and intent. It must be heartwrenching and thrilling, steeped in fiery love and fierce tragedy. But this production captured none of the gravitas that lends power and purpose to a ballet. It seemed as though the choreography was preoccupied only with delivering the story, rather than delivering a gripping display of dancing. Perhaps this production would have done better to abandon some of the less crucial parts of the story so as to allow for more fervent dancing in its more intense moments. Perhaps then the dancers would be more animated and exciting to watch.
Instead, the San Francisco Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet” was more soporific than the sleeping potion Juliet drinks near the end of the performance. There was more aimless sauntering and exaggerated death than dancing in the piece. When Romeo and Juliet finally killed themselves at the conclusion, it was no great tragedy, both because of the tedious way the scene was performed and relief that the show was finally over.