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Universal Ballet

'Romeo and Juliet'

Engineering détente

by Jeff Kuo

August 7, 2004 -- Kodak Theatre, Hollywood, California

A world of violence beckons in Oleg Vinogradov’s “Romeo and Juliet,” recently performed by the Universal Ballet of Korea at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland. Ceaseless warmongering is bad, the ballet warns, and who is arguing? The ballet’s theme is topical enough whether referring to the original production of 1965 or this more recent staging. Perfect love blooms and briefly flourishes, to be sure, but the love between Romeo and Juliet is almost incidental to Vinogradov’s heavy handed political message about the consequences of clan violence. I can’t remember when a ballet which actually had more dancing seem like it had less.

Structurally, feud violence begins the ballet so that it can be tidily ended by the ballet. In a sense the ballet is a choreographic machine for engineering peace with its “why-can’t-we-all-just-be-friends” message built into the ballet’s very structure. For instance, when the curtain rises, the Montagues and the Capulets are arranged in a faked smiling pose, an all too tentative cease-fire immediately broken by the drawn swords of the two family patriarchs. In other words, the very first movement of the ballet is what I believe is called a “hostile posture” in the lexicon of security industry. Two hours later, the ballet ends not with an image of the fallen lovers alone on the stage (symbolizing the unique proportions of their fatal love) but with the Montague—Capulet reconciliation scene of the Shakespearean original, complete with the former enemies clasping arms, putting an end to hostilities.

Much has been ruthlessly subordinated to Vinogradov’s peace message: familiar faces are gone and marginal characters gain prominence. Where are all the townspeople? Capulet henchmen and Montague toadies roam the stage and the only non-combatants are the corps that enjoy the Punch-n-Judy show that begins Act II. Verona emptied of all but hostiles resembles less medieval Italy and more the savage frontier towns of Sergio Leone’s “Fistful of Dollars” or Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.”

Ironically in light of the ballet’s anti-violence aims, the ballet has some notable casualties. Romeo can do without Rosaline or even Benvolio because he still has Mercutio. But take away the Nurse and Juliet has little with which to flesh out her character. In recompense, Vinogradov has enlarged the roles of Friar Laurence and Paris but whether this is an equitable exchange is an open question.

The Friar particularly is thrust into a hitherto unknown prominence as the would be mediator between the warring clans. In the unsubtle and repetitive Christian imagery given to Friar Laurence, the anti-war or perhaps anti-violence message is so obvious as to risk parody. Friar Laurence (Igor Soloviev) first appears in the pose of Christ on the cross immediately after the first street brawl, and throughout much of the ballet, the Friar mopes about in a vaguely irritating hang dog way. Often the good Friar appears as if he was just interrupted at one Station of the Cross or another on his lonesome way to Calvary.

Curiously, after the duel with Romeo, crucifixion imagery is applied to Tybalt as the Capulet retainers take his corpse away, though it would take a far more astute analytical mind than I possess to hazard what are correspondences between Tybalt and Christ.

Paris, unfortunately, got an especially bad deal. In the Act I Ball scene, Paris fleshes out his usually thin character with a solo variation unique to this ballet. But, neither he nor the story are better for it. When Paris spies Romeo and Juliet who have just fallen in love and are cooing like lovebirds, Paris dances to express his despondency over having his erstwhile betrothed snuck out from right under his nose. But his music is the dainty music associated in other productions with a flower dance for Juliet’s friends. It’s as if it weren’t enough that Paris has been cuckolded even before he has been officially betrothed, he has been emasculated by the feminine music. No wonder then that the Capulet clan’s alpha male, Tybalt, expresses his exasperation when Paris fails to take up the (phallic) sword thrust upon him to enforce his claim to Juliet.

The real injustice done to Paris, however, is the deletion of his Act III last respects to Juliet’s funeral bier, and his duel and death at Romeo’s hands. In the Shakespearean spoken word original, up until the final scene, Paris has been as shallow as his trite and formulaic language. The cloying, rhyming couplets he uses have long since been abandoned by Romeo and Juliet for the freedom of blank verse. When Paris, who has for the entire play up to this point been essentially milk toast, draws his sword to duel with Romeo, it signifies his acquiescence to the play’s terrible code of honor and makes him in death fit to take his place in the final tragic tableaux alongside Romeo and Juliet.  However, in the ballet, after taking up Paris in Act I, Vinogradov simply drops him from sight after Act II.

Perhaps period topicality explains the ballet’s curiously drawn drama. It’s difficult to tell from the program notes exactly how much of the 1965 original production has been retained. Perhaps in the Cold War world of the 60s, a peace story about a priest ending clan violence was interesting and perhaps even believable in a way impossible in 2004 after several generations of more bloodshed – Vietnam, Palestine, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Chechnya, the Sudan, Bosnia, Iran, Iraq -- unfortunately, the list could go on. In Camille Cole Howard’s monograph, “The Staging of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a Ballet” (Mellen Research UP, 1992), there is a description of the lovers’ suicide in the original production where Juliet then Romeo signifies their suicides by taking off their costumes to stand in leotard and tights, stabbing the costumes with a dagger, and walking off the stage. Certainly, if Vinogradov has abandoned this highly stylized and compressed style (violent death in the 21st century is a messy affair), it might have been well to rid the ballet of the clumsily allegorical figures of Death and Life (both danced by Rachel Hamrick).

On Saturday, Yena Kang danced Juliet. Believable as the ingénue character the choreography imposes on Juliet far too long into Act II, Kang’s Juliet grew quickly in Act III into a desperate young woman who could believable commit suicide over her lover’s body. Romeo’s role is unfortunately one of those male, drone ones that give dancers so little work with, but Jae-Won Hwang looked credible enough, and both he and Kang received great applause at the end.

As with other productions, the male role to have isn’t the hapless Romeo but the far more charismatic Mercutio or Tybalt. Indeed, in the best of these, Tybalt exerts a magnetic attraction on Mercutio twinning in aggression the romantic attraction Juliet has for Romeo. Rabul Seo’s leather clad Tybalt had just enough masculine bestiality to interest Semyon Chudin’s Mercutio but not enough to make the sparks fly.

With his gaunt face, long hair and thin beard, Igor Soloviev’s Friar Laurence appeared suitably Christ-like but his mime had an overblown quality that seemed more suitable to early Soviet silent film than ballet. In the Carnival Act, the Tarantella soloists were Sung-Ah Lee and Boyun Kim, and Columbine was Sahra Maira. Gorgeous costumes were by Galina Solovieva and set design was by Simon Pastukh.

Pavel Bubelnikov conducted a nameless and unnamable orchestra.

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