BWW Review: ROMEO & JULIET Ennobles at MetOpera
Sir Kenneth MacMillan silenced the Bard to the wordless storytelling of corporeal movement. His three-act Romeo & Juliet remounted at MetOpera this June 20-25, ennobled by three decades in American Ballet Theatre repertory.
Through ballet, MacMillan begins where Shakespeare left off, in search of what is arguably the highest ideal of the artist: transcendence. "Silence is the artist's ultimate otherworldly gesture," wrote Susan Sontag in Styles of Radical Will. "By silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world..."
The story of Romeo & Juliet is not romance, it is pure tragedy, wrought of a terribly unromantic time in history when youthful Eros was subjugated by blood-born violence, when the grace of sexual pleasure was repressed to empower the inglorious muscle of male aggression. The mortal pride of family honor is the seamy underbelly of what the post-Shakespearian literate world has deemed romance. The narrative essentially bespeaks nothing more than absolute mythological tragedy.
It was from the Pyramus & Thisbe of Ovid where Shakespeare gleaned his Romeo & Juliet. The cemetery of Verona was formerly the wilderness of Babylon, where religious mediation by the friar was once dramatized by the horror of a prowling lion.
The creativity of MacMillan was no less tried by the vice of such terminal confrontation. Not only was Romeo & Juliet his first three-act ballet, the global reputation of modern Britain as the sower of dramatic genius was on the line. The British Romeo & Juliet was prompted by Leonid Lavrosky's 1956 Bolshoi Ballet production at the Royal Opera House, not to mention the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.
MacMillian proved more than his artistry, he proved his peerless courage in the five months he had to complete his now classically distinguished work. Prior to his taking the helm at the Royal Opera House, Soviet authority derailed Dame Ninette de Valois while Royal Danish Ballet choreographer Frederick Ashton declined the production for fear of competing with Lavrosky's formidable reputation in Britain. Even more intimidating was the fact that Lavrosky worked with Prokofiev himself.
Ormsby Wilkins conducted the iconic score on the theme of Op. 64, Montagus and Capulets, the Dance of the Knights to a rabble-rousing, sword-fighting theatrical extravaganza that bled and roused some fifty dancers. Nicholas Georgiadis resurrected Late Renaissance 16th century Veronese life with tantalizing detail. His eye-boggling costumes and arresting scenes were the pearly decor of the evening, all in the spirit of such artistic forebears as Paolo Veronese.
Today, 400 years after the death of the Bard, the MetOpera affirms his afterlife with the MacMillian remount. The choreography is reputably less technical and more emotional in its dramatic form than other current ABT season productions, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.
That makes Romeo & Juliet all the more popular for ballet connoisseur and virgin alike. And the plot is more realist than fairy-tale. More political than spiritual, more human than supernatural, MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet dance in the emotional ruins of a world where national triumph rules over personal fulfillment, where individuality is assumed as mere egoism and social convention furthers the ignorance that separates man from man, woman from woman, and most tragically, man from woman.
Shakespeare and MacMillan echo the cry of the people when they are shattered by the divorce of love from youth. And in the art of ballet, within its spatial richness and swift poses, almost as rising from the unconscious, the dancers exhibited the nature of life on Earth where the truths of mortal sexuality are juxtaposed with the enlightening spiritual imagination.
Cory Sterns, as Romeo, and Hee Seo, as Juliet, masterfully personified all of the lofty airs and violent intensity of impassioned emotion inflamed by war and hate, and succored by intimacy and selflessness. The crowd-pleasing Roman Zhurbin as Tybalt lightened all of the flagrant pride, in humor and solidarity, to his bitter end.
The tragic lovers, Romeo & Juliet, are ultimately in search of the freedom that is complete and utter unity, like the eternal heart of the poet finding transcendence in silence, standing on the tip of his toes, whirling with a sweat-whipped brow, to reach beyond the involuntary bondage of life to death, for love.
In America, where the notion of a romantic tragedy is entirely laughable to most popular storytelling, MacMillan has gained critical respect likening him to the genius of Picasso. The son of a fallen WWI soldier, his influences from postwar theater define the earthly character of his Romeo & Juliet. Reflecting on the choreography of the final scene, Prokofiev himself affirmed the double-suicide for love as utterly transcendent in his ballet.
From pas de deux to dragging corpse, MacMillan does not overplay the earnestness of the stylistic dramaturgy so essential to ballet. Yet, he literally choreographed Romeo & Juliet to death with all of the awe-inspired beauty that breathes deeper and deeper into the core of the only truth of being alive: that love is all there is to life.
Photo Courtesy of MetOpera.org