Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances May 1–10.
By Jennie Scholick, PhD
What is it? A heartbreaking tale of young love and loss set to one of ballet’s favorite scores. Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet, choreographed in 1994 to Sergei Prokofiev’s iconic score, is one of San Francisco Ballet’s greatest showpieces. This classic adaptation of the familiar story routinely brings the audience to tears.
In short:Fair Verona. Teenagers in love. Balconies, crypts, and tragic ends.
Who it’s for: Anyone who loves high drama, cinematic music, or a good tearjerker.
What Will I See?A classicist at heart, Tomasson hews close to the classic tale in his Romeo & Juliet…
The Plot: Romeo & Juliet is fundamentally a story of two feuding families, not just two lovers, so first, we meet them in the main piazza of Verona. The Montague crew are represented by Romeo, his two best buds, Mercutio and Benvolio, and his crush-of-the-moment, Rosaline. The Capulets are headed up by Tybalt and friends. Boys being boys, they get in a fight that’s quickly shut down by the Prince of Verona.
Meanwhile, Juliet Capulet is back at the Capulet house, staying generally out of trouble with her Nurse. That is, until her parents show up with a total stranger named Paris, who happens to be a count and interested in marrying her. Juliet, romantic teenager that she is, isn’t that into this idea.
A party, thrown by her parents, gets her out of her funk—especially once she sets eyes on Romeo, who manages to sneak in (masquerade balls are good for this kind of teenage prank). Teenage hormones are flying and the two are instantly enamored. Romeo showing up under her balcony later that night is like the original Say Anything boombox scene.
What Should I Look For? The first act of the ballet puts all the characters on stage, so you’ll want to look for the way that their dancing expresses who they are. This is a 20th-century ballet, so that character exposition happens in movement, not mime. That said, the real showstopper in this act is the balcony scene, set to some of the most romantic music in the ballet canon. Though full of difficult lifts and turns, this pas de deux’s emotional intensity builds organically, until it culminates in Romeo and Juliet’s first passionate kiss.
The Plot: We’ve already discussed those teenage hormones, right? Well, Act II is where we really see them in action. Juliet and Romeo decide that secretly dating someone their parents truly hate isn’t enough, they’re going to go all in and get married. With help from her Nurse and a Friar who really doesn’t ask enough questions about minors entering into a holy matrimony, Juliet and Romeo become man and wife.
It’s not long though before things start to go sideways: Tybalt and Mercutio get into it again and despite Romeo’s best efforts, Tybalt kills Mercutio. Then Romeo kills Tybalt. Not only is killing your wife’s favorite cousin generally a bad idea, but to make matters worse, the Prince of Verona—truly fed up now—banishes Romeo from the city.
What Should I Look For? Tomasson worked closely with fight director Marty Pistone to create all the fight scenes in this ballet, and they’re on real display in this act. Look for how intense these scenes are and how carefully choreographed. The more chaotic they seem, the more precise they really are. On a lighter note, also keep an eye out for the three acrobats—often a chance for younger soloists to show off. Particularly look for the moment when the two male acrobats work together to toss their female companion in the air, almost like she’s on a trampoline!
The Plot: Act III opens with Romeo and Juliet waking up from their first night together—exile wasn’t going to keep them from consummating the marriage! But Romeo does have to sneak out before the Capulets show up in Juliet’s bedroom with Paris. When she refuses to marry him, her parents threaten to disown her.
Juliet returns to Friar Laurence, who yet again does not seem to really understand his role as the adult in this situation. Instead of telling her to go ‘fess up to her parents and figure out her life, he gives her a potion to drink that will make her appear dead. The plan, such as it is, is that he’ll let Romeo know that Juliet’s alive, just hanging out in her family crypt for the night, and then they can leave Verona together.
Spoiler alert: this plan fails miserably. Romeo never gets that really key bit of information about her actually being alive, and so he returns to Verona distraught. He sneaks into the crypt where he finds Paris still mourning. They fight and he mortally wounds Paris. Then Romeo drinks poison and dies. Juliet wakes up and finds herself next to her dead Romeo. She stabs herself.
The only upside? Brought together by their children’s deaths, the Capulets and Montagues end their deadly feud.
What Should I Look for? Notice how the pas de deux in Juliet’s bedroom reprises some of the musical and choreographic phrases from the earlier balcony pas de deux, creating a sense of cohesion and arc. Also, of course, watch for the end, when Romeo and Juliet each make the decision that it’s better not to live at all than to live without one another. Even without words, their thoughts and intentions are as clear as Shakespeare’s verse.
Header image: Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson