After 50 years of countless different casts in various productions from dance companies around the world, MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet remains the standard by which all others are judged. This Juliet is a role that can make a ballerina’s career. It certainly kept Margot Fonteyn’s career going well beyond its expiration date. As Juliet, Diana Vishneva was replaced by Hee Seo due to illness. I won’t try to hide my disappointment, but it taught me a lesson about pigeonholing dancers. I have found Seo to be less than charismatic in the past; her Nikiya in Bayadère was too dispassionate and lacking dramatic fire. Her Juliet, however, was beautiful, deftly rendered, even poetic. As one audience member near me said, “It’s not the revelatory performance I was expecting from Vishneva, but Seo is very good.”

Hee Seo (Juliet) © John Grigaitis
Hee Seo (Juliet)
© John Grigaitis

Seo’s Juliet was a creature of pure innocence which was finely articulated in her initial scene with the Nurse, wonderfully played by Martine van Hamel. Seo’s Juliet was a girl on the cusp, still playing with dolls and cheerfully tormenting her nurse. If this is overdone, you roll your eyes and fret about the money wasted, but Seo did everything right. At the end of the scene, when Nurse placed Juliet’s hands on her budding breasts, her shock at discovering she was no longer a girl was humorous but tinged with the pathos at the impending loss of innocence. With each successive scene in Act I, Seo built upon her character, adding layers of newly discovered passion on her path to womanhood which culminated in hopelessness and despair in Act III. Seo delivered the story with refined gestures and effusive expression. She moved on pointe with such feathery lightness that her bourrées became an essential element of Juliet’s character. At the end of the Balcony Scene, when Juliet and Romeo exchange their first kiss, Seo rose on pointe as the thrill of her first kiss lifted her off the ground. It was convincing and delightful. She fell short of what I hoped for in her death scene, but she so far exceeded my expectations that I joined the audience in giving her a standing ovation. I think she has more to give but hasn’t yet found her way to showing us her ultimate despair as well as she delved into the ecstasy of her first love.

Marcelo Gomes was a first rate Romeo. There are not a lot of flashy tricks in MacMillan’s choreography but it’s deceptively difficult with lots of en dedans turns and jumps that have little to no preparation. A succession of three double sauts de basque in a row with no steps in between is much more difficult than it might appear and Gomes ran through it all effortlessly. As the callow youth, chasing after Rosaline, he was impetuous, bordering on caddish. Upon laying eyes on Juliet at the Capulet’s ball, she was promptly discarded. Gomes’ Romeo saw Juliet from afar and was intrigued but it wasn’t until they met face-to-face – yet another of MacMillan’s perfect, indelible moments in this ballet – that they were both irrevocably and fatally smitten. Romeo sets the tone in the Balcony Scene’s pas de deux, and this is one of the most romantic in the entire classical ballet repertoire. Gomes gave us the inspired rapture that we were looking for. Each gesture and movement was an extension of his newfound love for Juliet and she responded in kind. More than Seo, Gomes had the dramatic gravitas required for tragedy. His despair at finding Juliet dead in the crypt in the final scene gave you every expectation that he would take the poison. How could he not? Life without her held no meaning for him.

Marcelo Gomes (Romeo) © Marty Sohl
Marcelo Gomes (Romeo)
© Marty Sohl

Of the supporting cast, the best was Thomas Forster as the menacing Tybalt. Sometimes this character is played as an over-the-top villain. It is sufficient for him to be the fierce defender of his family’s honor and Forster did this well. I felt put upon by Craig Salstein’s Mercutio. His clowning was too broad and full of smirks and ultimately came across as brattish rather than the irreverent wit that Mercutio is supposed to be. Blaine Hoven’s Benvolio was good enough that I would like to have seen him move up to play Mercutio. Karen Uphoff’s Rosaline was pure, regal elegance. The three harlots, Devon Teuscher, Zhong-Jing Fang and Alexandra Basmagy, gave us plenty of louche naughtiness to look at while we were waiting for the dramatic action to continue – they looked like they were having more fun than anybody. Victor Barbee’s Lord Capulet was right on the money while Stephanie Williams’ Lady Capulet was off the mark, especially in the death of Tybalt. The one element in the ballet that I truly disliked was the first act’s swordplay. It looked under-rehearsed and poorly executed. It’s too important to the integrity of the ballet to let things like this slide. It was inexcusably sloppy and clumsy.

After 50 years, it’s safe to say that this crowd favorite will endure. That is mostly due to the many small moments that MacMillan choreographed showing character and illuminating key plot points. Juliet dropping her doll when she discovers she’s no longer a girl. The moment when Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio make the final decision to enter the Capulet’s home and try their luck at the ball. Romeo and Juliet’s first face-to-face encounter. Their first kiss. Juliet placing Romeo’s hand over her heart. Time and again MacMillan found the right place in the music to tell the story with these perfect gestures and it makes this ballet nearly impervious to any individual shortcomings on any given night. On this night, I saw Hee Seo deliver an unexpectedly terrific performance.