Sergei Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet is perfect. With sweeping and weeping strings accompanied by menacing horns, it is William Shakespeare’s story told by instruments.
Inaugurated at Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance in 2015, San Francisco Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet choreographed by Helgi Tomasson matches the template Prokofiev has laid out. Prokofiev’s score was written in 1935 and performed in ballet form in 1940 by the Kirov Ballet, choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky.
The adaptations to follow would often emulate that version. Tomasson takes the same classic approach to the score by setting it in 16th century Verona and including memorable scenes like the gate dance, balcony and bedroom pas de deux, sword fights, etc. First appearances convey a middle-of-the-road approach, but subtle tweaks intertwined throughout help kick the storytelling up a few notches.
Tomasson achieves this by bringing something to the table which other productions lack: logic.
Instead of hearing of Tybalt’s (spoiler alert) death through the grapevine, Tomasson places Juliet in the square, a witness to the tragedy only expounding the fretful emotions in the bedroom pas de deux.
When Mercutio (double spoiler alert) is killed, Tomasson has him use his cloak to cleverly hide the wound, making the cover up more believable.
Another moment negated from other productions is the (okay, last spoiler) undelivered note from Friar Lawrence to Romeo. In a brief scene, we watch Romeo and the messenger just miss each other in the square; perhaps also a foreshadowing of what is to come.
These minuscule moments build up a reality which allows for a much more devastating blow when things culminate.
Pristine sets designed by Jens-Jacob Worsaae (also the costume designer) add flavor to the narrative. He makes a typical Verona square atypical with a horizontal bridge running across mid-stage. At the ball in the house of Capulet, a back-facing balcony, stairs, pillars, and painted walls are impressive. But most glorious is the crypt set; huge, ornate metal gates shut Juliet in her tomb. Blue daylight on the other side of the gates leaves one with an uncomfortable feeling, knowing the couple are destined to never feel the just-out-of-reach sunshine on their skin again.