Life starts early in the Verona of “Romeo and Juliet,” which the San Francisco Ballet launched Thursday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. As dawn rises over the Italian city’s busy public square, even the hookers are already hustling.
How strange, then, that the zest of this opening scene did not carry through to the rest of the evening.
This production, choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, is aesthetically of a whole. It is tasteful, visually handsome and civilized in manner from start to finish. (The hookers are emphatic but never vulgar.) The dancing was clean, crisp. In the leading couple, Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada, it was fully elegant. All the ballet lacked was dramatic vibrancy, the kind that draws you deeply into the story not merely as an admirer of the mechanics but as a participant in its emotional unrest.
Of course, that’s hard to do when there is little emotional unrest.
Throughout the ballet, one senses Tomasson’s ambivalence to Shakespearean passions. Clearly, he believes in beauty. This is everywhere in evidence: in the attention to details of technique and in the spaciousness of the choreography. The stage picture is never messy.
Craftsmanship abounds, particularly in the painterly, muted tones of the sets and costumes in high Renaissance style by Jens-Jacob Worsaae. But the Danish designer had too much salmon on his mind, especially at the Capulet ball.
An eye for beauty is clear in Tomasson’s opening-night choice of Kochetkova as Juliet. The Moscow-born, Bolshoi-trained dancer possesses exquisitely shaped legs and feet and an overall quality of physical lightness. But in this role, one of the most glamorous in the ballerina catalogue and one that typically oozes with expressive possibilities, she stayed safely on the surface.
Kochetkova’s interpretive qualities were limited in a way that suggested she hasn’t been coached to develop them. She can flick her leg high up to the back, like the spreading of a great wing — but then you see that no, it’s not a symbol of flight, it’s just a shape. There is no reciprocal freedom in the rest of her body, no ripple of response in her waist or shoulders. She gives the impression of having dutifully learned when to show expression, rather than drawing on internal, spontaneous impulses. Her interpretation seems to begin and end with what she has been told to do.
Boada, too, is a careful lover, so focused on doing what’s right that he waits to smile until after he has correctly landed a leap.
But more important than any single dancer, Tomasson’s concept is the source of the mild tone. As much as he is a fan of beauty, he seems to have no taste for intensity. His love scenes don’t suggest the carnal; his fight scenes don’t hint at danger. There is a lot of arm-acting — pointing, “Would you look at that?” gesturing — but a fierce, living drama this is not.
Thankfully, Prokofiev’s music helps sustain momentum. Martin West, the San Francisco Ballet’s music director, conducted the Opera House Orchestra in an especially bright, singing rendition.
Spots of genuine feeling came from supporting players. There was a moving moment when Anita Paciotti’s Nurse rocked a crumpled Kochetkova in her arms as if she had consoled her this way a million times before. Daniel Deivison-Oliveira’s prowling, authoritative Tybalt didn’t overplay the hothead, and he gave us a swift death, skidding to his knees in shock. It felt like a punch.
Elsewhere, “personality” was built into a few characters, affixed like a costuming detail. The acrobats grinned relentlessly on cue.
This is a company of golden technical abilities and no small amount of finesse. But lovely blandness doesn’t cut it, not in this tale of woe.
The San Francisco Ballet performs “Romeo and Juliet” through Sunday, with cast changes.