I’ve never been a fan of modernism in literature (Virginia Woolf, I’m looking at you) or concert music; however, Prokofiev has always been an exception to that rule. Whether that results from early exposure to Peter and the Wolf (a favorite bedtime recording growing up) or Sting’s sampling of Lieutenant Kijé in “Russians,” we may never know, but I have special fondness for the music in Romeo & Juliet.
In fact, the “Dance of the Knights” is one of my favorite musical themes of all time and one of my ringtones, along with the opening bars of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. What can I say? I like the dramatic. (See also: Carmina Burana and Swan Lake.) Like “O, Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, “Dance of the Knights” often shows up where there is a need for drama, perhaps most famously in Chanel’s ad for Égoïste perfume.
Unfortunately, while I adore this music, the piece sort of fails as a ballet. While ballets generally revolve around great love stories, and Romeo & Juliet is certainly that, the structure of the plot—the rivalries among Veronese families, the balcony scene, the fake death and extended cemetery scene—just doesn’t lend itself to dance. If you don’t know the story going in, it is impossible to follow. Granted, many people do, but I don’t think that should be necessary.
Yes, almost all ballets use some mime to convey the story, but how does one mime “our families have been feuding for years and this is a secret forbidden love” or “this stuff I’m drinking isn’t really poison but just something to fake my death for two days”? And the third act, which starts with the newlywed couple in bed and ends with an extended death scene, has almost no dancing. It is insufferable. I think La Belle Chantal didn’t believe me when I said that when I used to see this with standing room tickets in New York, I would leave after Act II. But now she understands why.
That’s not to say that there aren’t things to like about this ballet. In addition to the sublime music, it has great roles for men, with multiple sword fighting scenes and various displays of bravado. Here, Pascal Molat as Mercutio really stood out for me, both with his acting and incredible center—the man could spin for days I think. The ballroom scene, with the aforementioned “Dance of the Knights” at its center, is always a showstopper and I thought this version, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, more than held its own in that regard.
Sarah van Patten seemed perfect for Juliet, and her partner, Pierre-François Vilanoba, was a convincing Romeo, but I just didn’t think they were given very much to do. Compared to Onegin earlier this season, which contained incredible displays of technical skill and creative interpretation of story, and Le Carnaval des Animaux, which was so delightful, this performance really fell flat for me.