Was it steam and haze that kept thousands of audience away from the Royal Ballet's only East Coast performances that began July 10th in Philadelphia? Was it because the local papers of note did not preview it prior to opening day? Perhaps it was a combination of uninformed public and threat of storm that left the 5,000 seat Mann Music Center less than a third full for the London ballet troupe's performances of Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. To be sure, some people came from far to see them. I spoke to audience who had driven two to three hours from Cape May, New York, Scranton and Baltimore. And those were just in vicinity of my seat. I cut short vacationing in the Berkshires to drive down in time.
Those who braved weather and long drives were rewarded with exquisite and, for the most part, flawless, dancing. The heat wave that swept the East Coast may have kept the dancers' muscles in melting mode. Their port de bras, leg extensions and pointed feet were fluid as hot wax, and their leaping tours suspended them in the heavy air longer than usual.
But all this may have dampened Romeo and Juliet's passion for each other. I missed first night with Johan Kobberg and Alina Cojocaro, which audience (yes, some came twice for cast change) told me had more of a sense of dénouement than the second night's sense of dispatch. Not that there was any hurry in cutting short the two overlong intermissions that were to have been intervals and dragged the ballet out to an 11 p.m. finale. Did the Mann hope to sell more dry popcorn? More Cheese Wiz drizzled nachos? Time was when you could see a show like this at the old Robin Hood Dell while supping on your homemade ratatouille, quiche and champagne on your own blanket.
The Mann was supposed to make for a better experience for audience and performers. But the special floor required by the Royal covered up the air conditioning vents so the dancers and local "townspeople" in heavy costumes did not benefit. And you would think that huge and silent ceiling fans like they have at IKEA would be installed to keep those trapped in middle seats minimally alive for three hours.
Edward Watson and Mara Galeazzi danced second night. Watson is the new hot guy who London is buzzing over. His sexy close-up ads for the Royal are shocking to Londoners. Shocking! To me the pictures look more coy and flirty than erotic and I do not see what in Watson's chiseled good looks makes him particularly sexy. London balletomanes and critics are calling it a "dumbing-down and cheapening" of the art.
But ballet, indeed all dance, is about the body and therefore narcissistic and eroticized, so why pretend otherwise? Why not strip it down to its basic viscerality? What was Romeo and Juliet's motivation? It was raw sexual attraction awakening for the first time in teenage bodies. Most of us know, or can remember, that torrent of mindless attraction centered in our lower extremities that drove us to our first wild and perhaps not-so-successful sexual encounters. Successful or not, they brought us into our own adulthood, maturing us sometimes beyond our years or tenderizing us for love(s) to come. Coyly covering up this deepest human hunger cannot engage new audiences for ballet.
The Stuttgart Ballet brought John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet to Philadelphia in 1973 on a similar run at the Academy of Music with three nights of Swan Lake. My sister and I, barely out of our teens, arrived late and besotted from a train trip from Baltimore spent mostly in the club car. We thought our first night tickets were for Swan Lake, but when we settled noisily into our seats, we heard the pompous strains of the orchestra playing the ballroom scene music for Romeo and Juliet. Bump bah dump bah dump ah bump, ba dump a bump dah, dah, daahhh. Confused, my sister slurred a whispered, "Where are the swans?" Neighboring audience shushed us. "Shut up! You're at Romeo and Juliet."
Marcia Haydée danced Juliet and I saw her later in the week as Odette. Her rippling bodice melted rib by rib onto Romeo's torso and you knew he would have embraced her even if she were made of molten lava and her caress would have obliterated him. I can't remember now if it was Richard Cragun who partnered her or Egon Madsen, but if you don't get my drift that they were hot, then you're a cucumber.
I loved Cranko's choreography all the more for the boozey haze through which I watched it. (That haze did not prevent me from recognizing, years later, Angelin Preljocaj's reverent homage to Cranko in his own Romeo and Juliet.) I felt like I was in England watching the Shakespeare play in the original at the Globe. And I realized then that all the refinement that had covered up the English theater in the centuries since is what keeps the ballet from being more popular, at least in the states. People have the idea that you must know the work, or know choreography, or the music and you must behave with the utmost decorum.
No. I say go and get it in your gut. Laugh out Loud. Cry. Slobber. Sigh. Grab your neighbor's hand in suspense. Put your hands over your face. Bite your knuckles. Long to feel the exquisite emotions the dancers show when they touch. Go to the ballet because, at its best, it brings you to a higher consciousness of the refinements of love, not manners.
I could not find much in the Royal's performance at the Mann to bring me to a higher consciousness of anything other than the turgid performance of Prokofiev's music by the pick-up orchestra under Boris Gruzin's lead-pipe baton. They played as if they were immersed in a bowl of Jell-O, their notes unable to collude with one another or explode through the surface.
Kenneth MacMillan's choreography was well, English in the cool and Queenie way, not in the warm Diana way. The attraction between Romeo and Juliet did not unfold but mechanically started up like a car. Too much time was spent on the family feuds and not enough on the blossoming and fruition of the passion between the lovers. Nurse, played by Genesia Rosato, hardly got to do any of the comedic shtick Shakespeare set up for her. And Friar Laurence, totally miscast by the tall Bennet Gartside, barely had any role let alone the opportunities for humor he provides in other productions.
There were moments, many of them. They just didn't gel into a whole. Deirdre Chapman, Isabel McMeekan and Samantha Raine saucily spiced their dancing of The Three Harlots. In his tours as Mercutio, Ricardo Cervera made it look like he was being lifted aloft by his port de bras alone. Galeazzi's first swoon and her stag leaps into Watson's arms had lip-biting beauty.
Watson extends his legs and points his feet as sublimely as a prima ballerina. And the quality of dance, overall, is what is to be expected of the Royal. Ne plus ultra.
But few moments conveyed the lovers' drunkenness with each other, their desperation to be with other. The poisoning and stabbing scenes were so inept as to almost be slapstick. If ever sex were needed as a selling point, it is between ballet lovers on stage. Could the offstage criticism have inhibited sexuality for Watson and Galeazza? Or was there simply too much heat outside for any to be given in love?
The final question is "Should you have been there?" Resoundingly, yes. Being at live performance is about memory. Were you with someone you madly loved, or were you a silly or tipsy girl like my sister and me. This was the Royal's first appearance here in thirty years. You may die before they appear again. But if you were there, you'd someday remember something precious about the performance. Maybe it will be the vulnerability of artists striving to achieve the ineffable. Maybe the tragedy of young, thwarted love. Whatever moment you took away is something no one can ever take away from you.