You can have it all — youth, wealth, beauty, even a perfectly nice fiance — and still feel trapped. This is the truth of “Romeo and Juliet.” The cry for freedom is a far more interesting theme than love.
Yet frothy romantic intensity is what you find in most ballet versions of the Shakespeare tale: layers of goop, thick and thin at the same time.
The Washington Ballet’s production spares us this. This is good and not so good. On the plus side is the thrilling sense of freedom, embodied with breathtaking poetry by EunWon Lee as Juliet. Other ballerinas will take on this role at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where the company performs through Sunday. Lee returns to it Saturday afternoon. I cannot imagine the ballet succeeding without her.
This brings me to the weakness of this production: its dramatic pull. The Washington Ballet is dancing the version created in 1962 by John Cranko for the Stuttgart Ballet. (He’d choreographed a first draft in 1958 for the Ballet of La Scala, then revised it for the German company.) The South African-born Cranko had a flair for theater and storytelling in dance, yet his “Romeo” skims over the drama as lightly as a skipping stone.
The ballet follows the full sweep of Sergei Prokofiev’s score, performed by the Washington Ballet Orchestra conducted by Beatrice Affron. You are in for a good three hours, reader. This raises the risk built into every “Romeo and Juliet” that uses Prokofiev’s blueprint (as most do). Will it be worth three hours of your time? If you have seen a Prokofiev-based “Romeo” before, perhaps not. This version is less visually lavish than, say, American Ballet Theatre’s production, though it is quite well-dressed. The capable cast is far smaller. The choreography is very often delightful, particularly for the crowd scenes, with their charming camaraderie and warmth.
But Cranko skimps on motivation. Whiz bang: Lee and her Romeo, Gian Carlo Perez, are a couple, suddenly but not convincingly. Cranko’s strength is in his entertaining dance sequences, but a ballet this big also needs some quiet, where we can share in the dancers’ human, psychological process, so they can pull us into their minds. I never felt that pull, and it wasn’t the fault of the dancers. The choreography doesn’t give them the chance.
This is why Lee was so essential to the ballet’s generally favorable outcome on Thursday, and why I’m not certain of its impact without her. Lee is an unusual ballerina. She is not a dancer with dazzle, not in the sense of blinding attack or the kind of glamour that leaps at you. She does not have a direct manner with the audience, nor does she emanate star power. She is tall but not grand. Her quality, especially in the role of Juliet, is more delicate, childlike.
So what does she have? When she dances, her speed and abandon come at you so suddenly that they take you by surprise. You can’t quite grasp what you’re seeing. In her falling-in-love pas de deux with Perez, she spins around in his arms so quickly, vanishing into a blur and reappearing, that you ask yourself, did it really happen? It defies explanation — it’s a bit of magic, maybe a trick of lighting. But there she goes again, flicking from one pose to another and along the way, somehow she whirls entirely around. Or she flies into the air, or throws herself over Perez’s arm, bonelessly, as if her body has vanished and he’s left holding silk.
You may think I exaggerate. But Lee does all these things, or they are done to her; you never see the effort. She has been a standout dancer since she joined the company a year and a half ago, as a Korean star who moved here to work with Artistic Director Julie Kent. Lee has improved since then in many ways — her feet are more supple, her extensions are higher, her expressiveness can be more fully felt.
Mostly, she is more free.
In “Romeo and Juliet,” in the accumulation of her moments of physical freedom — unexpected, unexplainable, completely new — we can read Juliet’s inner state, her pulse gone haywire, her feelings overwhelming her.
Halfway through the ballet, Perez found enough technique to match her. He was not in his best form earlier in the evening; Andile Ndlovu, effortlessly airborne as Mercutio, and Javier Morera, as Benvolio, outdanced him. Yet what never wavered was his partnering; Perez was exactly the solid support Lee needed, allowing her the freedom to whip from here to there and carry us with her.
The Washington Ballet performs John Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday.