The summer festival is in full swing at the outdoor venue of Wolf-Trap (outside DC), which proved an excellent place in which to recreate the atmosphere of Renaissance Verona, with its heated passions and fatal conflicts.This is happily the second time that I have attended an American Ballet Theatre performance this season, and I confess that I am struck, once again, by the warm humanity of their interpretations, tonight in Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet. They are, in the hands of director Kevin McKenzie, quite brilliant storytellers. Isn’t telling a story what ballet always does, one might ask? Not always with the same degree of finesse: there are plenty of examples where the story is pushed to the background to make way for the surface dazzle of the dance. Of course, with Romeo and Juliet, one could argue that the story is pretty easy to get right. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl kill themselves after family politics go awry. Nobody lives happily ever after. Verona probably goes on being bloody. Over-familiarity breeds contempt. 

But there's more to do. One learns how much narrative matters to a company by how much attention they pay to the fine details – the details that many may miss, the details, for instance, of subplot and minor characters, of gesture and expression. And here there was an abundance, layers of richness to both comedy and tragedy: Montague and Capulet males eyeballing each other warily while ostensibly surrendering their weapons under the Prince’s imposition of peace; familial matriarchs’ coldly curtseying; boyish hijinks (the line between boys playing at being vicious and actual viciousness was played beautifully); respectable village maidens in futile competition with the village harlots for male attention; Tybalt throwing back a drink on arrival atop the plaza steps and spitting, murder already in his heart; Romeo’s bewildered steps, arcing around the stage as his attention is captured by the sight of Juliet  (how clever that love at first sight should look so much like fear, for to love the daughter of one’s enemy in such a climate of easy violence is to sign one’s own death warrant.)

Tonight’s Romeo (Cory Stearns) had an ebullient style and expansiveness of movement. Juliet (Hee Seo) had clean lines, great refinement of movement and delicacy of person – a fit that worked particularly attractively for the young, untried teenager, on the cusp of womanhood. The strength of their partnering was their fluidity of movement and shared youthfulness, a chemistry that convinced most of all before the pressure of the crisis. I particularly liked the physical evocation of ambiguity in her relationship with Paris, (Thomas Forster) the parentally-sanctioned suitor. The slackening of her movement (a kind of rubato) in Act I (Scene II), betrayed the depth of her emotional hesitancy especially when contrasted with the childlike exuberance of her rapport with Nurse, and the yieldingness of her movements with Romeo. Even more in Act III, did she withhold herself from Paris in a striking pas de deux.

Craig Salstein played a lithe and brilliantly entrancing Mercutio; his death in Act II turned out to be the most moving moment of the night. Clown till almost the end, drinking the health of his doxy, death visibly paralyzed his immense physical and psychological vivacity – the whole was peculiarly tragic. By contrast, Romeo and Juliet’s twin deaths, that ultimate in tragic irony, seemed rushed and lacking in emotional power. It was curious to look back on the whole and realize that the emotional high-point was Tybalt’s killing of Mercutio and Romeo’s subsequent killing of Tybalt. I highly approve of the centrality of the dark crimes of the middle act, but not to the detriment of the ends of the star-crossed lovers.

The spiky, acid neo-classicism of Prokofiev’s score was amply brought out under the baton of Ormsby Wilkins. Perhaps there could have been more indulgence in the lushly romantic sections, but then again I confess to a certain weakness for emotionally over-indulgent renditions of literature's most celebrated teenage love-affair. Nicholas Georgiadis is to be praised for the lavish costumes – ochres, rubies and terracottas all speaking of Mediterranean skies and red earth. How well flamboyant appearances set off the violent loves and ends of these Italians. It is easy to be drawn in by depictions of the Renaissance world in ballet, as the very art form has come down to us, still speaking the language of courtly rituals, etiquette and hierarchies.