Family animosities and vendettas — perceiving people simply because of their background — can be traced throughout history. This is why Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” is a story that has been continually adapted and updated for new contexts and audiences. While San Francisco Ballet frequently performs new renditions of old classics, the company transported audiences back to the streets of Renaissance Italy for the opening night “Romeo & Juliet” on April 21 at the War Memorial Opera House.
The curtain rose on Verona’s main piazza as townspeople, including members of the feuding Montague and Capulet families, made their way onto the scene. Clad in character shoes instead of typical ballet slippers, the company gave every character personality as they flicked their wrists and swept their legs around in attitude turns. The orderly chaos of the marketplace scene gave way to an encounter between the two families. Sword fight choreography by Martino Pistone and Helgi Tomasson capitalized on the dancers’ dexterity; the chaotic clanging of the swords was silenced only when the Prince of Verona (Pistone) rushed onto the scene to restore order in the town.
This sense of order carried into the next scene as Juliet Capulet (Jasmine Jimison) was asked for her hand in marriage by Paris (Stephen Morse) and throughout the first part of a ball thrown by Juliet’s parents (Ricardo Bustamente and Jennifer Stahl) later that evening. The company appeared nearly like the painting in the stage’s backdrop had come to life — clad in black and orange velvet and moving in a stately manner.
Yet, when Juliet entered and sensed an immediate attraction to Romeo Montague (Angelo Greco), who had snuck in, all order shattered. The two weaved between the meticulous lines of the waltzing corps de ballet as Juliet tried to escape Paris’ plea to dance with her and the judgemental eyes of her parents.
Act I came to a close with the iconic balcony scene, when Juliet wandered out onto her balcony after the ball to find Romeo waiting for her below. Clad in pink and white chiffon rather than stiff materials for the first time, Romeo and Juliet declared their love for each other in a pas de deux. The couple’s legs reached full, expansive extensions — no longer restricted by the town watching their every move. The tension of their forbidden love was expressed through Jens-Jacob Worsaae’s multi-level set design, which physically separated the duo when Juliet finally had to return home.
Act II alternated between more intimate scenes and dazzling group displays as Romeo and Juliet married in secret, Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Esteban Hernández) died in a duel with Tybalt (Luke Ingham) and Romeo was banished from Verona by killing Tybalt in an act of revenge. The weight of the violence was balanced by three Acrobats (Julia Rowe, Cavan Conley and Wei Wang), who intermittently emerged from the crowd. Their spritely jumps and cartwheels defied ballet’s conventions when their heads tilted off-kilter and their legs bent in parallel.
Though Act III advanced the storyline significantly, Tomasson’s choreography mirrored itself in a manner that made the plot easier to follow. For example, Romeo bowed his head as he swung Juliet over his back in the same manner as he did in battle, and each death scene made use of the set’s levels as the character dying staggered up a staircase with their last breaths and died draped on the steps. Throughout the act Juliet agreed to marry Paris, took a sleeping potion provided by Friar Laurence (Jim Sohm), miscommunicated with Romeo and caused him to believe she was actually dead, and took her own life after realizing Romeo had done the same.
Despite the story’s gory end, the dancers breathed life into every moment; Juliet’s struggle to control her fate was nearly felt by every audience member as her chest heaved up and down. The story is brought to life not just through the dancers’ grace of movement, but through Prokofiev’s exhilarating score, intricate set design and innovative choreography.