BWW Reviews: Pacific Northwest Ballet's ROMEO ET JULIETTE
Written with Ellen Dobbyn-Blackmore
"For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."
James Moore and Kaori Nakamura in PNB's Roméo et Juliette
Photo © Angela Sterling
The enduring appeal of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is revealed in that it is still received by audiences - more than four hundred years later - with the same enthusiasm as when it was first presented in Elizabethan England. Though perhaps not the greatest of his works, it is arguably the most beloved as it is the one that has been most frequently re-imagined for ballet, Broadway, film, opera and literature. Jean-Christophe Maillot's version, presented by Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), is a cinematic ballet that is mostly faithful to the original and yet original in its own right.
From the beginning, critics have been divided about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In 1662 Samuel Pepys derided the play as "the worst that I have ever seen." The ballet versions have also been subject to controversy. Prokofiev's score, now an undisputed masterpiece, was at first rejected by the Bolshoi Ballet. Maillot's version, first presented by his own Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in 1996, has had its admirers and detractors as well due to its decidedly contemporary approach. Leaving aside comparisons to previous iterations of Romeo and Juliet as a ballet, the only important question is whether or not this production succeeds on its own merits. Does Maillot's conception of the world's greatest romantic tragedy work? Does the ballet carry dramatic conviction and tell the story in a way that grips the audience? Does it stand on its own? Most emphatically, yes.
The performance began with a cinematic element as opening credits were projected on a scrim while the overture played. To simplify the plot, Maillot has discarded several characters which tightens the narrative and shifts the focus to the conflicts of youth while deemphasizing the family feud. Apart from Lady Capulet, there are no representatives of the elder generation Montagues or Capulets. There are no swords and there is no vial of poison. It is also frankly sensual and earthy which has been a problematic element ever since the play's creation. There are many sexual references in the original play which were edited out of some later productions and then restored only to be cut again. In Maillot's ballet, breasts are groped repeatedly. This is not one of those fusty story ballets overflowing with superfluous people standing around to make the set look more weighty. The roles of the Nurse and Friar Laurence are typically mime parts given to retired dancers and ballet masters but that is not the case here. They are fully realized dancing parts that are vital to the drama.
The scenic design, by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, is decidedly minimalist with a few gently curvEd White slabs that define the space in which the ballet is performed. The modernist curves create soft shadows and seem to embrace the action while the upstage ramp serves as a visual anchor to the action. There is no attempt at clever stagecraft as the pieces move around during the performance. The movement of the set pieces becomes part of the action. The ramp serves in turn as an entranceway to the piazza, a stairway, a balcony and the place of Tybalt's death. Any color in the set was provided by Dominique Drillot's lighting which was warm and evocative but left some dim areas downstage.
Jérôme Kaplan's costumes were admirably scaled down from the usual, weighty Renaissance robes and masks that are worn in other productions of Romeo and Juliet. In terms of style, there was an eclectic mélange of tunics, capes, kimonos and Juliet's gold lamé gown. The overall effect is generally exotic. Among the notable standouts were the costumes for Rosalind, Juliet and Lady Capulet. Less successful was the costuming of Tybalt with the armpits distractingly cut out and Friar Laurence's odd priestly garb that didn't feel consonant with the rest of the design scheme.
Maillot's choreography can be characterized as intense, speedy and precise. At times there is more action in this ballet than the eye can easily take in. While this is a departure from the model of the older classical story ballets it is still very much grounded in classical technique. He avoids clichés in his steps that make the older ballets so familiar to us that we sometimes feel we know them before we see them because they are nearly the same sequences of steps as in every other ballet. This aspect alone makes the ballet feel new again.
Juliet and Lady Capulet dance the third act entirely in their bare feet which is a departure as well. There are many intricate hand gestures that underscore the plot, revealing the characters' true feelings for each other. These busy hand gestures stand apart in some ways. The characters are describing inner feelings that aren't always directly in time with the music.
Maillot has rendered the essential parts of the story readily visible and clearly related but there are other parts that require attention to the program notes and previous acquaintance with the text of the play. There is no clear moment in which Juliet drinks the potion that simulates her death and no clear cause of Romeo's death in the tomb scene. The red scarf, ostensibly blood-soaked, that Juliet extracts from Romeo's tunic and with which she suicides is visually arresting but we must suspend our disbelief in the physical impossibility of self-strangulation. Then there is the problem of Friar Laurence.
The most important thing, of course, is the dancing. The sparity of set and economy of costume weight is fine but it only works if the dancing delivers on the promise of the story. Nothing can compensate for a lack of conviction. This was the first time the full company of Pacific Northwest Ballet, led by former New York City Ballet principal Peter Boal, had been seen in New York since 1996 so they were largely unknown here. In its return to City Center, the company delivered on all counts as the dancers, from top to bottom, rose to the challenges presented by Maillot's Roméo et Juliette.
The corps de ballet rates first mention for the work they did. They are all expressive, quick and powerful dancers. Maillot's choreography gives them a lot of challenging dancing to do and they deliver it with taut precision and terrific energy. This company has some very tall dancers who are imposing and exciting in the way that they move.
The Nurse may never have been better played in a ballet than it was by Rachel Foster. It could turn out to be her misfortune to be so good at this role that she doesn't get to try out other parts in this ballet because she is gifted as a dancer, a mime and an actress. Foster is the most Shakespearean of all PNB's players, deft as a bawdy comedienne clowning with Mercutio and Benvolio, and deep as a tragedienne as she mourns the death of her Juliet.
As Friar Laurence, William Lin-Yee did not reach the same required level of profundity. Was it due to his youth and lack of experience? Maillot has greatly enhanced the role of the friar. In Shakespeare's text, the play opens with a sonnet recited by the chorus in which the entire plot is given in advance. Here, the ballet opens with Friar Laurence, supported by the Two Acolytes, utilizing the symbolism of the cross and relating the tale of two houses of Verona. This places the friar unequivocally in the position of the Christ which the program notes suggest is indicative of his struggle between good and evil. Whether or not the trinity as symbol of the duality of good and evil is accurate theology or even an apt metaphor is debatable but the problem here had more to do with Lin-Yee's inability to captivate the audience.