San Diego Arts San Diego Ballet’s “Romeo et Juliet” at the Lyceum Theater
On Valentine’s Day, what else? By Brian Schaefer Posted on Mon, Feb 16th, 2009 Last updated Tue, Feb 17th, 2009
Presenting Romeo & Juliet on Valentine’s Day weekend is about as clichéd as one can get. It is the ultimate in programmatic marketing, capitalizing on the frenzy of romance that annually sweeps the nation in the beginning of February and creating a civil war on opposing sides: those in relationships and those not in relationships.
Shakespeare’s tragic story of star-crossed lovers caters primarily to the former with its message of eternal love, but folks in the latter category (and feeling particularly bitter on this day) may take comfort in seeing the pure havoc and destruction that love can bestow on its victims.
Regardless of the perspective with which you enter the theater (or the size of the chip on your shoulder), San Diego Ballet’s presentation of the classic tale delivered the goods thanks to strong dancing by impressive leads that fit into a well-edited 90-minute one-act. If you took in the show with your loved one, you could walk away fulfilled. If you saw the show alone as I did (my honey lives overseas), well, you still walked away content.
The two main reasons for the satisfaction: the graceful and emotionally honest series of pas-de-deux from choreographer and San Diego Ballet co-Artistic Director Javier Velasco, and the exuberance of Chelsy Meiss, who brought both playful innocence and an elegant maturity to the role of Juliet.
To present ballet in the Lyceum theater is to take quite a risk – the stage is essentially level with the first tier of seating and the distance between audience and performer is closer than most spaces where ballet is presented. The edge of the stage and the first row of chairs are separated by just a few low steps, almost an invitation to the audience to participate in the performance (whereas usually, we’re separated by an orchestra pit – whether or not it’s in use – that creates a more sound barrier).
For some of the larger ensemble sections, such as the masquerade ball where Romeo & Juliet first meet, there is a sense that the action is too close and one wishes for a bit of a buffer zone. On the other hand, there is a sense of being in the middle of the action – a rare feeling in ballet. For the pas de deux, Velasco mines the intimacy of the space with simple, tender gestures and sustained balances that Meiss nailed. Meiss and her capable Romeo, Pal Udvarhelyi, approached the complicated lifts and balances with ease and confidence and the result felt fluid and genuine.
To counter Juliet’s lightness and joy, Rachel Sebastian gave us a Lady Capulet that was just short of abusive to her daughter. In the play, Lady Capulet is anything but supportive of her daughter’s affair and delivers some verbal stingers in a few scenes, but the character doesn’t dominate the play the way she does in this version, and her opposition to the match feels more tempered when placed in the context of the other condemning adults.
Nevertheless, channeling the authority and disapproval of all four feuding parents into one proved an effective dramatic tool. Sebastian stared the audience down with sinister looks and sliced through space, strong and grounded – not unlike classic Graham. And Lady Capulet’s beefed up role in this production gave greater weight to the idea of parental control and pressure; it reminded me of the way society in general can be so inexplicably offended and involved when it doesn’t agree with one’s choice of lovers (sound familiar, California?).
On a note of detraction, the design of the performance felt a bit bipolar. The set was stripped-down with the solid black back curtain framing the majority of the scenes, save for a few instances in which is was dramatically parted to reveal rich colors on the screen beyond. Aside from a few draped banners, there was little to suggest a particular time and place.
This would have felt fresh and contemporary except that the costumes were of the extravagant variety – loads of layers, tight corsets, sequins and ornate headdresses. Whether it was an intentional aesthetic decision to juxtapose minimal sets with period costumes – or merely a financial one – the contrast was jarring.
So Romeo & Juliet on Valentines Day turned out not to be the love-fest I expected. After all, it’s still a tragedy and everyone, with few exceptions, ends up dead. Somehow though, it was hard to leave the theater heavy-hearted. And perhaps that was just a testament to the quality of dance by San Diego Ballet. Regardless of your relationship status, that’s something everyone can celebrate.
Dates : February 13-15, 2009
Organization: San Diego Ballet
Production Type : Dance
Region : Downtown
Venue : Lyceum Theaters, Horton Plaza, San Diego
About the author: Brian Schaefer is an alumnus of UC San Diego with degrees in Communication and Dance. He recently completed a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to study Arts Journalism and Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina.