There were plenty of good news in this matinee performance of MacMillan’s classic ballet Romeo and Juliet by American Ballet Theatre.

The last time I saw this ballet the swordplay was lamentably weak and sloppy, so much so that it detracted from my enjoyment of the show. It is now crisp and clean again which enhances the dramatic action. It is essential that stabbing someone implies plausible fatality and now it does again. There were several great individual performances but the orchestra should get first mention. The playing was vibrant, intense and well-articulated under Charles Barker’s baton. Prokofiev’s music, my favorite for a story ballet, is challenging to the brass section and they tossed it off very well.

In the supporting roles, Victor Barbee as Lord Capulet led the Ballroom scene’s Dance of the Knights with magnetic power. His intensity was mesmerizing. He showed that it’s the small things that matter in dancing. It’s the angle of the head, the articulation of the feet, the focus of attention, and the carriage of the upper body that define nobility. He owned that, and all of his dramatic acting as well. Audience favorite Daniil Simkin was an ideal fit as mischievous Mercutio. His impish personality shone through and his feline technique was flashy but always under control. Calvin Royal did a fine job as Benvolio and he even out-turned Simkin a couple of times. Patrick Ogle’s Tybalt was, refreshingly, not a gratuitous villain as he is often played. He was angry, protective of Juliet and his family, and ultimately killed Mercutio out of rage at the taunting rather than through sheer villainy.

James Whiteside was as appealing on stage as I’ve ever seen him as Romeo. He did a lot of things very well but there were occasional lapses. His rapport with Benvolio and Mercutio felt fresh and easy, their camaraderie natural. Unfortunately he seemed to forget that he was Romeo a few times while dancing as he looked more concentrated on the choreography than his character. Nonetheless, he was a terrific partner who helped his Juliet fly. His consideration for the harlots showed that he was more than a lothario and it was good characterization. He was somebody who cared about others. With some more work he could be a truly great Romeo.

Isabella Boylston delivered a terrific first performance as Juliet. She seems a natural for the role of the girl who has to grow up in a tragic hurry. In her initial scenes Boylston showed us a girl who was lively and curious but terribly shy around strangers. She came across as more sheltered than unknowing, loveable rather than adorable. Her first scene with Thomas Forster’s Paris was utterly charming. She kept retreating to the comfort of her Nurse, affectionately played by Nancy Raffa, but couldn’t help wanting to see more of Paris by peeking from behind her place of safety. Her first foray into dancing with a male was full of tentative movement. Boylston cleverly allowed that hesitation to fade as her character developed. In the Ballroom scene there was the first, lyric dance with Paris before she met Romeo. It’s beautiful dancing but still somewhat formal. Everything changed after that. She became more fluid and assertive, yearning for just one more sight of Romeo. Her port de bras became more expressive and less structured until she reached the Balcony Scene and then she completely cut loose. She threw herself into her jumps and lifts with ecstatic abandon, having complete confidence that her Romeo would catch her. I’m sure MacMillan would have loved it. At one point in the Balcony scene she had to do a series of piqués into arabesque in a wide arc that looked as though she was flying across the floor. When she reached the famous scene where, after rejecting Paris, she has to sit on her bed with no choreography and the music soaring around her, Boylston let us feel the moment with her. This is where the little girl dies and the mature Juliet takes her place. It was riveting. By the time we got to the final scene in the crypt, the audience was fully in her corner and she had earned a standing ovation. Boylston has more work to do to fully realize the possibilities of the role but that can only happen with time and experience.

This is the penultimate week of American Ballet Theatre’s spring season and there have been lots of debuts in new roles, premières of new ballets and several notable milestones. Altogether it’s been pretty successful. There’s only a few shows of Romeo and Juliet left and then it’s on to Sleeping Beauty. Last chance!