San Francisco Ballet brings its 2015 season to a close with Helgi Tomasson’s gorgeous production of Romeo & Juliet.
Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy of the two young lovers of 16th century Verona has been recreated in almost every theatrical form for hundreds of years. Passionate, dramatic and colorful, the story of Romeo and Juliet has long held an allure for choreographers and composers as well, and various interpretations of the ballet have emerged since its first appearance in the latter part of the18th century. Now one of the best loved full-length ballets in the repertoire, the versions which have proved the most enduring are those set to Sergei Prokofiev’s sumptuous score – acknowledged as one of his greatest masterpieces,
Prokofiev composed Romeo & Juliet in 1935, on a commission from Russian theatrical director, Sergei Radlov, for the Bolshoi Theatre. The libretto was created by Prokofiev, Radlov and Adrian Piotrovsky – a critic, theatre historian and playwright – with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky. When Prokofiev delivered the score, however, it was deemed “undanceable” by the artistic direction of the Bolshoi, and the contract was canceled. Three years later, Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet was premiered in Brno, Czechoslovakia, with the assistance of Ivo Váňa Psota – a dancer, choreographer and director.
It wasn’t until January 1940 that the ballet – having undergone significant revisions – was premiered in Leningrad by the Kirov Theatre, with choreography by Lavrovsky, and Konstantin Sergeyev and Galina Ulanova in the leading roles.
For Helgi Tomasson – San Francisco Ballet’s Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer – Romeo & Juliet holds a special appeal – the role of Romeo is one which he’d loved to have danced. When he staged his first production of the ballet for the Company in 1994, he was able to draw on the emotions and characterizations which he’d held dear for a number of years, so it would be surprising if these concepts hadn’t colored his heartfelt approach to the creation of his ballet – as well as the fact that he confesses to being “a hopeless romantic”!
Another issue of importance to Tomasson was that the roles of the other characters in the ballet – in addition to those of the leads – should feature prominently. “I thought it was necessary to convey that because it’s not just Romeo and Juliet, it’s the people around them that make the story happen,” he says. “Tybalt has to be a hothead; he has to be a bully in many ways, to everybody outside his clan. There were things that had to come through so that the whole thing makes sense. It’s not an abstract, make-believe story or fairy tale; it’s a human story. This could be today, anywhere.” Indeed – one has only to think of Jerome Robbins’ inspiration for West Side Story.
Pascal Molat – a Principal Dancer with the Company – concurs with Tomasson’s view on the importance of the other characters in the ballet. He dances the role of Mercutio, which he calls a “kind of trademark”, since his career as a dancer began with it. He has danced Mercutio at Royal Ballet of Wallonie, Royal Ballet of Flanders and Ballets de Monte-Carlo (where he also danced Romeo). “This is an ambiguous role,” he says. “You can develop the character in many different directions.” Mercutio is a joker, he says, but “this is the superficial layer, underneath that there is a lot of depth”.
Principal Dancer Sarah Van Patten first danced Juliet as a 15-year-old apprentice with the Royal Danish Ballet, and has performed the role at five different points in her career. “I would love to do it every couple of years,” she says, “because it has been paving my way throughout my career. It’s interesting to see and feel how you change in a role like that.” She says that the aspects of the role which are most important to her are the transitions which illustrate Juliet’s emotional development and carry the story forward. “You go from this young, carefree, raw girl to grown, mature, deep, thoughtful,” she says. “I love the buildup of it, the moments when you recognize that there’s growth or a change or a decision happening.”
There’s another reason that Romeo and Juliet has a special meaning for Helgi Tomasson – it was the last production on which he collaborated with Danish designer, the late Jens-Jacob Worsaae whose sets Tomasson describes as “the most beautiful work [Worsaae] ever did”.
San Francisco Ballet’s production of Romeo & Juliet opens at the War Memorial Opera House on Friday, May 1, and runs until Sunday, May 10. For further information, and for on tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website where you can also see a selection of video clips from the production.
San Francisco Ballet program notes