Romeo and Juliet, Together Again, Thanks to San Francisco Ballet

I couldn't wait to see San Francisco Ballet's latest offering of Romeo and Juliet. As with most companies, SF Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson alternates the casting of the principal parts among several dancers, and I was looking forward to seeing Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in the leads, as well as the incomparable Pascal Molat in the demanding role of Mercutio. But this is such a fine, deep company -- at the first intermission, talking with my friend Jay Gilman, I said, "I would gladly come back to see the other casts."

Jay said, "I would gladly come back to see this cast."

When a company's principal dancers and soloists are this excellent, your choice of casts often comes down to those whose acting ability or personal style/charisma grabs you. My all-time favorite Romeo will have to be Yuri Possokhov, now the company's choreographer in residence. Trained in Moscow and a member of the Bolshoi and Royal Danish Ballets before he came to San Francisco, he had magnificent dancing and acting skills, plus, frankly, major sex appeal. (Please don't think me shallow; I mean -- Romeo.) When I saw him dance his last Romeo, in tears at the end, I looked over at my friend, Ivory, who burst out, "Does he know I'm single?!" To tell the truth, I can't remember who danced Juliet that evening.

This year, tiny, doll-faced Kochetkova, who is a wonderfully proficient ballerina, danced Juliet so girlishly at first, more Clara in Nutcracker, I wondered how she would handle the transition to sudden love and lust for Romeo. She did, of course, starting with her frank interest in the masked Romeo at her father's ball. By the time she and the handsome Karapetyan performed their gorgeous pas de deux, with all those airy, sensual lifts, in the balcony scene, it was sexual awakening before your very eyes, so to speak. Meantime, you knew the tall and manly Karapetyan, an older ladies man of a Romeo from his flirting with another in the first act, had fallen in love with Juliet's lovely, innocent charm.

With its sex and violence, Romeo and Juliet is truly a classic ballet crowd pleaser, at least when done right. To break your heart, it really needs dancers who are adept at physical acting, too -- dancers who can go beyond the surface of the story's emotions and embody a notion of the characters. You want to feel their lust and love, anger and heartbreak, bone-deep pain over separation and (what seems, then is) death.

Similarly, all that swordplay between Montagues and Capulets -- particularly between the Capulet hothead Tybalt and Romeo's beloved friend Mercutio, followed by Romeo himself -- should have the audience tense. So thank goodness Tomasson, who choreographed this version of R&J, enlisted actor, teacher, and fight expert Martino Pistone to help develop the "fight-scene choreography" and, each time SF Ballet performs this ballet, to train the male dancers in handling those weapons. Set in the Italian Renaissance -- hence all those gorgeous velvets and brocades, flowing sleeves and intricate soft caps -- this production uses weapons of the period: rapiers (long swords with double-edged blades) and daggers. Each cast's Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio practice together, of course; and if there's a last-minute cast change, Tomasson says it's nerve-inducing because each duo's timing is a bit different.

While ballet versions of Shakespeare's inimitable 1597 play have existed since the late 1700s, most productions now are set to the full-length score composed by Sergey Prokofiev in 1935, which certainly encourages an audience's swooning and fear. At the same time, the musical passage during Mercutio's death scene causes it to go on far too long. Though Molat perfectly expressed in movement and mime everything from braggadocio, to careless-seeming flirting, to faltering life, you can never feel the emotions you should when among them is a trace of impatience.

Even Romeo's anguish at finding Juliet "dead" was overacted and overlong, which kept me from crying my usual buckets of tears. (Only Paris, the wealthy suitor whom Juliet's parents were forcing her to marry, was dispatched quickly, there in the tomb.) But then Juliet awoke and discovered her Romeo, got up the nerve to stab herself, and crept over to die beside him. When, not yet quite dead, he weakly lifted and dropped his arm over her, my evening was complete.

While this is the last program of the season (and let's hope SF Ballet brings this beautiful tale of woe back again soon), the company will be performing four short ballets in the city's Stern Grove Festival, for free, this summer.

May 9, matinees May 9 and 10: San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.; July 26: short ballets, Stern Grove, 415.865.2000.