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Star-crossed Lovers

It seems the only way to see Shakespeare set in the Elizabethan era these days is to go to the ballet. Especially in Washington, D.C.

Performance

The Washington Ballet: “Romeo and Juliet”

Place

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, February 15, 2018

Words

Rebecca Ritzel

EunWon Lee and Gian Carlo Perez in John Cranko's “Romeo and Juliet” for the Washington Ballet. Photograph by Gene Schiavone

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The Bard is popular America’s capital, home to both the Shakespeare Theatre, Folger Shakespeare Library and a troupe dedicated to modernizing classics called Avant Bard. Currently, you can go see a contemporary Hamlet where the Prince of Denmark texts Ophelia and Polonius runs the CIA; late last year, the shipwreck inTwelfth Night was reconstrued as an airplane crash near a fantasyland Florida. All the inhabitants of Elyria ran around onstage dressed like Palm Beach socialites.

Traditionalists who prefer their ladies-in-waiting wearing empire waist gowns, flowing capes and ridiculous headdresses must forgo Shakespeare’s dialogue, and get thee to the Kennedy Center.

The Washington Ballet unveiled its new production of John Cranko’s 56 year-old “Romeo and Juliet” Thursday, February 15 at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. With live orchestra and supernumeraries, it’s a huge and laudable undertaking for the company, which previously performed mostly to canned music in smaller theaters. The dancing was promising too: Eunwon Lee, who joined in 2016, was a radiant Juliet, first full of sincere girlish energy and then womanly grace.

Yet if new artistic director Julie Kent wanted to draw new audiences to the company she took over 18 months ago, staging this old school “R&J” was not the way to go. Not with sets that look as old as the ballet. Not with costumes more appropriate for Monty Python. Not in a city with such high standards for touring ballet and creative, homegrown Shakespeare.

Kent replaced longtime director Septime Webre, who stepped down abruptly in 2016. The former American Ballet Theater principal didn’t apply for his job; the board begged her to come run her hometown ballet company. In her opening night curtain speech, Kent indicated she is aware of the Washington Ballet’s competition, and appealed to patrons for loyalty.

“These dancers are your neighbors,” Kent said. “They are in your community. They are your company, the ballet company of the nation’s capital.”

Should dance patrons want to see ballet at the Kennedy Center this spring season, their other choices are ABT, New York City Ballet and National Ballet of Cuba. It’s a very, very unique dilemma. How do you convince audiences to support the smaller, subpar hometown team?

Webre’s tactic was to be different. He’s half-Cuban, and successfully courted Washington’s diplomatic elites and wealthy Latin American ex-pats as donors. His programming was a mostly a mix of commissions (from the likes of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Trey McIntyre) and bold new story ballets (mostly choreographed himself.)

When Webre left, he took all of his own herky-jerky choreography with him, leaving Kent with little repertory. For better or worse, she’s now upping the inventory of old-fashioned story ballets and commissioning works not from global stars but her ABT colleagues. (A March program will feature works by Marcelo Gomez and Gemma Bond.)

Kent imported Cranko’s creaky-looking “R&J” because it was her sentimental favorite: She performed it herself 33 years ago with the Joffrey Ballet. It was also cheap: She profusely thanked the John Cranko Trust from the stage, and program notes explained that sets and costumes are on loan from National Ballet of Canada.

That’s the challenge faced at Washington Ballet in a nutshell: They are literally stuck with choreography and costumes that National Ballet—a bigger, better company that toured triumphantly to the Kennedy Center in 2012 and 2016—junked in 2009. Two years later, NBC began performing a bolder, brighter version that Alexei Ratmansky set to the same beautiful, volatile Prokofiev score.

Gian Carlo Perez and EunWon Lee in “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Gene Schiavone

You could argue that none of this cast-off production context matters as long as the dancing is sublime. Well, yes, it does matter, and no, the dancing is not sublime.

Kent is clearly trying very, very hard to raise the standard. For years under Webre, the company failed to retain talented young dancers; those older dancers who performed principal roles tended to be good but not great, or not versatile. Also, as one dancer once told me: There are a whole lot of injuries around here.

Lee is exactly the sort of dancer who gives Washington Ballet patrons hope for the Kent tenure. She is wonderfully expressive, and like Kent herself, a credible actress. Her dancing brought an unlabored lightness to Juliet, complemented by correct technique that never looked clinical. Her Romeo was Gian Carlo Perez, one of four Cuban dancers who joined the company late in Webre’s tenure and appear game to stick around. His reckless love for Juliet was apparent, though that youthful ardor should not translate into crooked turns.

Cranko’s choreography is heavy on the double tours for the men, and unfortunately the opening night trio of Perez, Andile Ndolovu (Mercutio) and Javier Morera was an absolute mess full of lopsided turns and spacing issues. To be fair, Ndolovu outshone his Montague friends, but the high-jumping antics of all three should be a highlight of any “R&J.” Or, as Mats Ek calls his own fanciful, fantastic production which came to D.C. in 2016, “Juliet and Romeo.”

Highlights from the Washington Ballet’s supporting cast include Elaine Kudo as the nurse. On Youtube, you can still watch Baryshnikov slap Kudo around in “That’s Life,” the most controversial of Twyla Tharpe’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” and it’s fun to see her serve the Capulets well here.

If only Juliet’s parents weren’t depicted as such overly emotive morons. Kateryna Derechyna, like other courtly women at the ball, is saddled with a horned headdress and ridiculous empire waist red gown. She walks in it with her shoulders curled back and skirt held forward, like a pregnant woman wrecking havoc on her spine. Stephen Nakagawa’s Lord Capulet wore a yellow pageboy wig and mismatched dark mustache fit for a community production of “Spamalot.”

Costumes get worse in Act II, when the clowns wear fez hats and yarn wigs, the gypsies look like medieval cartoon tramps and the peasants don earth tone hand-me-downs.

Cranko’s bedside pas de deux are inferior to those by Kenneth MacMillan, in the version still danced by ABT. (That scene when Romeo dances with the not-dead-but-sleeping Juliet slays me every time.) Still, it was easy to become emotionally invested in Perez and Kim as they died together in crypt, far from familial turmoil.

All weekend, an appreciative Kent posted photos of her Romeos and Juliets on her Instragram account, always with the hashtag #yourcompany.

It’s my hope that, as she continues to circulate in Washington, Kent visits more of this far city’s excellent theaters. She knows what good dancing looks like, that’s unquestioned. But in a capital where such a high percentage of citizens are striving to run the world , she’ll have to do better than putting another city’s 20th century cast-offs onstage.

Rebecca Ritzel


Rebecca J. Ritzel is a Baltimore-based arts journalist. She served as the Washington Post's theater columnist from 2014-2016. Her cultural coverage has appeared in more than two dozen British and North American outlets, including the New York Times, the National Post, National Public Radio and Teen Vogue.

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