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MacMillan "Romeo and Juliet" returns to the Kennedy Center at last

Herman Cornejo in Romeo and Juliet, American Ballet Theater. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

Some fine versions of Sergei Prokofiev's beloved ballet Romeo and Juliet have appeared in Washington over the years: the Mariinsky Ballet in 2007, with Leonid Lavrovsky's Soviet-era choreography (also on DVD), and Julie Kent's revival of John Cranko's choreography for Washington Ballet in 2018, among others. Until this week's visit by American Ballet Theater, however, that company's classic staging by Kenneth MacMillan had eluded me. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev premiered it for the Royal Ballet, and then American Ballet Theater took it up for the first time in 1985, here at the Kennedy Center. This handsome production is back after a twenty-year absence, and the Kennedy Center Opera House, for a short time spared from the onslaught of Broadway musicals that have infested it, was filled to the brim to see it Friday night.

Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jaffe
Any time that American Ballet Theater comes to Washington, they are worth seeing, especially since Miss Ionarts and I missed their most recent production, last year's Don Quixote. Even more so since this is their first visit under the company's new artistic director, former prima ballerina Susan Jaffe. The much-missed critic Sarah Kaufman first advocated for ABT to appoint Misty Copeland to that position but then admitted that Jaffe could be the one to bring the company into the 21st century. It is a homecoming for Jaffe, who hails from Bethesda and has recalled that her first performance at the Kennedy Center was "when I was a child for the New York City Ballet as a big bug in A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

As it turns out, dancing Juliet at the second performance of ABT's Romeo and Juliet at the Kennedy Center in 1985 was one Susan Jaffe, paired with none other than Kevin McKenzie, her predecessor as ABT artistic director. Critic Alan M. Kriegsman noted of Jaffe's performance "a wonderful spectral quality in the duet she reluctantly dances with Paris in the last act," which seemed to resonate in that scene this time around as well.

ABT is fielding different principal dancers for each performance this week, a tribute to the depth of their bench. Last night's Romeo, the veteran Argentinian dancer Herman Cornejo, brought vast experience and emotion to the character. MacMillan demands remarkable strength from the dancer in this role, and Cornejo provided it through many lifts, sword fights, and athletic moves, seeming to flag just slightly only once during a long overhead lift in the first act. The evening's Juliet, Georgia-born Cassandra Trenary, has made noteworthy supporting appearances since joining the company in 2011. Her appointment to principal dancer came in 2020, and she made her debut in this ballet's title role last summer. She ravished the eyes, bursting with teenage energy and leggy awkwardness, floating en pointe as she backed away from unwelcome encounters with the tall, handsome Paris of Andrii Ishchuk. Her athletic strength allowed her to remain fixed in place in her many elegant lifts, as if we were seeing her as she saw herself flying in her dreams.

The muscular Mercutio of rising dancer Tyler Maloney led the supporting cast, abetted in his stylish combats with Joo Won Ahn's haughty Tybalt by the equally comic Benvolio of Luis Ribagorda. MacMillan went for the full Renaissance treatment in this ballet, with the dancers' bodies often weighed down with tapestry-like costumes and the action unfolding before candelabrae and lanterns on the dark-hued set (all designed by Nicholas Georgiadis). The crowd scenes filled the stage, both the heavy-handed court dances of the Capulet ball and the jealousy-laced street scenes, in which the sassy three harlots of Luciana Paris, Erica Lall, and Hannah Marshall sizzled.

Principal conductor Charles Barker, who often took the podium for Washington Ballet in the late, lamented Julie Kent era, presided over a fine rendition of Prokofiev's electric score. If there were a few intonation lapses in the string sections, fine solo work came from the dueling mandolin players, Neil Gladd and David Evans, and tenor saxophonist Dana Booher, guest spots that add remarkable color to the orchestration. The violent slashes of the Dance of the Knights and the biting fortissimo crush of the loudest moments, like the death of Tybalt at the end of Act II, were thrilling.

Romeo and Juliet runs through February 19.

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