The numbers may not have been quite as large -- 3 percent of the fans at RFK Stadium for the Nationals' home opener, by my calculation -- but the crowd at the official opening of the Washington Ballet's "Romeo and Juliet" Thursday was comparably fervent, giving Michele Jimenez and Runqiao Du a standing ovation for their passionate dancing of the star-crossed lovers.
The performance had something old -- the company first danced the same ballet almost four years ago, with the same principals, from Juliet and her parents to Romeo and his two buddies. The something new was the impressive artistic growth and authority all showed.
Miss Jimenez and Mr. Du brought an immediacy and abandon to their demanding roles, fueling the whole production. They are ideally suited to the ballet: Miss Jimenez's fresh radiance illuminates all her dancing, and Mr. Du's brooding good looks make him a perfect romantic hero.
As Romeo, he has overcome a certain natural reluctance and plunged headlong into the drama -- ardent in his scenes with Juliet, inflamed with grief as he fights to avenge Mercutio's death. Miss Jimenez goes beyond her natural grace and beautiful technique, plumbing the drama of Juliet's growth -- from the ecstasy of the balcony scene to horror at her impending marriage to Paris and her growing determination to defy her parents.
Their dancing is surrounded by strong, confident performances. All have grown impressively in their characterizations. Jason Hartley, making a welcome return to dancing after an injury, was a brilliant Mercutio. It was indeed already a fully formed characterization four years ago. His generous-spirited dancing is a bright spot in the production.
Jonathan Jordan, who possesses the purest classical technique of the company's male dancers, showed an amusing funky side in his relaxed take as leader of a commedia dell'arte trio. Brian Corman was striking as Tybalt, bristling with anger. Alvaro Palau danced with ebullient joie de vivre as Benvolio. Erin Mahoney chewed the scenery at Tybalt's death.
The combination of Shakespeare's poignant love story and Sergei Prokofiev's 20th-century score makes "Romeo and Juliet" the most-oft-performed full-length ballet of its time. Prokofiev created music so starkly dramatic that choreographing to it is almost a paint-by-numbers assignment. There is remarkable sameness among the versions set to his music -- Sir Kenneth MacMillan's version for the Royal Ballet being the most famous.
Dance makers all follow the same scenario: Juliet playfully kittenish, brought to recognize that she must leave childhood behind when her nurse places her hands on Juliet's budding breast; the ecstatic balcony scene; the dueling; the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, again with music that practically prescribes their every move; the pathos of the lovers' deaths in the tomb, with Romeo dancing with the dead, limp Juliet.
The Washington Ballet's version is set against handsome scenery designed by Alain Vaes and rented from the Boston Ballet, with lavish, colorful costumes by A. Christina Giannini. Kevin Meek's lighting is generally fine but relies too much on the cliche of dappling for effect.
Director Septime Webre has cut some scenes -- thankfully shortening the extended dance of the harlots in the crowd scenes -- for a fast-paced version that is touched with wit and humor and conveys the story clearly, though it suffers from too much dance for dance's sake, and not particularly original dance at that.
This is particularly true at the central moment -- the all-important balcony pas de deux. The intensity of Miss Jimenez and Mr. Du saves the scene, but it is undercut by the continuous acrobatic lifts, making it more of an aerobic workout than a love duet.
There are too few moments of the quiet, eloquent tenderness that make other versions so touching. Pirouettes abound to no apparent purpose, as when Romeo arises from the bed where he has spent the night with Juliet and goes into a series of turns and arabesques that in no way express his grief at parting.
Fine as the lead dancers were at the opening, other talented company members will take over their parts this weekend. Dancing the title roles this afternoon will be Laura Urgelles and Mr. Palau, with Mr. Jordan as Mercutio.
This evening, Elizabeth Gaither and Jared Nelson (newly and happily returned to the company after a stint at the Boston Ballet) will be the lovers, with Mr. Du taking on the role of Tybalt. Tomorrow afternoon, the entrancing Brianne Bland is Juliet with Mr. Jordan as her Romeo. Brian Malek, still listed as an apprentice, takes on the juicy male role in the commedia dell'arte trio.
WHAT: The Washington Ballet in "Romeo and Juliet"
WHEN: Today at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., tomorrow at 1 p.m.
WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
TICKETS: $29 to $84
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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