Review: Romeo and Juliet, American Ballet Theater

Thursday, June 23 2016
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

American Ballet Theater
Ormsby Wilkins, conductor

Alessandra Ferri, Juliet
Herman Cornejo, Romeo
Craig Salstein, Mercutio

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan

During this transformative week in which humanity edged two steps closer to doomsday, namely my hometown of Cleveland winning a sports championship and Britain voting to leave the EU, alas there is still music.  Ballet season, to be exact.  I’m not nominally a fan as I find any art form with a visual element in addition to the auditory to be overwhelming, but it’s been nearly a year and a half since my last token ballet concert, and I’m on Prokofiev streak, and 53 year old Alessandra Ferri is coming out of retirement to make this performance the event of the season (or so I was told), and what else have I gotten to do now that Carnegie Hall’s season is over?  So when inexpensive tickets became available in the morning, I snatched one without giving its affordability a second thought.  Then I proceeded to spend most of the work day at a standing desk–while gleefully extolling the virtue of standing to colleagues–in anticipation of sitting all evening.  See where I’m going with this?  Yep, the ticket turned out to be for standing room only.  And not even the nice kind like my two opera experiences from earlier this year, where I could comfortably hunch over the last row of seats.  Instead I was in the second of three standing rows, each row jam packed with allotted spaces of no more than a foot wide apiece.  If I hunched over the standing, umm, rack(?) I wouldn’t be able to see, and if I tried to fidget to take some weight off my feet I’d bump into the people next to me.

Upon realizing this predicament, I planned on leaving after the first act, especially since the only part of the ballet score that has ever really made an impression on me is the iconic “Dance of the Knights”, which is in the middle of the first act.  In reality “Dance of the Knights” was somewhat disappointing, as though the full stage of dancers constituted a visual spectacle, the choreography itself was understated and ran counter to the strong rhythmic nature of the music (I would have put in a sword fight there).  However, the sight of a 50-something woman doing pirouettes on her toes was truly inspirational, in the sense that I was inspired to deal with standing on two feet for the duration of the ballet.  Speaking of which, Ms. Ferri really was a sight to behold.  Though the choreography was subtly simplified, her carriage and presence were divine.  Those pointed toes!  If only Romeo could have clued in to the fact that the dead don’t point their toes.  Hollywood actresses should take note of her opening scene as Juliette, in which she exuded the kind of lightness and joy that only the young and innocent could.  How a 53 year old woman credibly plays the pre-Romeo Juliet is probably more astonishing to me than the sensuous dancing she later performs with her beau.

The supporting cast was all very solid as well, especially Mercutio, though I was told that Mr. Salstein’s posture is starting to suffer from his age.  Overall, I see now why Romeo and Juliet is a balletic classic but rarely played by standalone orchestras.  Its essence lies in the dance and the acting, with the music–seemingly undanceable in and of itself–serving a role more akin to film (or perhaps theater) score than functional music on its own.  For most in the audience, it was a special evening.  Not being an expert on the subject, some of that was lost on me, but certainly it’s still nice to branch out once in a while.
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