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Pacific Northwest Ballet
'Romeo et Juliette'
by Jerry Hochman
February 15 and 16(m), 2013 -- City Center, New York, NY
When I attend a ballet that I’ve never before seen, but which has been performed previously by other companies and/or at other venues, I don’t bone up in advance on the choreography by reviewing films or uploaded performance snippets to get a handle on how the ballet is supposed to look, or by reading prior reviews to determine what a choreographer’s intentions may have been. I view it the way a member of the audience would see the ballet on first impression. So, when the curtain opened on Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette at Friday evening’s first of three New York performances by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, I had little preconceived knowledge of what to expect. What I did understand from the unavoidable advance hype – that this version of the classic Shakespeare tragedy was choreographically and stylistically idiosyncratic, ‘cinematic,’ and more sexually charged than other more familiar productions – made me wince. I expected some sort of avant garde soft core angst-infected commentary on the hopelessness of it all.
I was wrong.
While I have issues with some of Mr. Maillot’s artistic choices (particularly his elevation of the role of Friar Laurence to some sort of prescient but powerless religious force), these issues pale in comparison to the impact of the piece as a whole. Based on the two performances I’ve seen, with different casts, Mr. Maillot’s creation impresses me as a remarkable visual (and choreographic) reimagining of the ballet as we usually see it in versions choreographed to the Serge Prokofiev score, and must not be missed. It is quirky, artistically innovative, intelligent, intellectually and visually stimulating, endlessly interesting, and takes enormous risks that more often than not work. And it is certainly sexually charged – but not inappropriately so. Indeed, in this respect it is one of the most honest versions of the ballet, on an emotional and sexual level, that this viewer has seen.
The company as a whole performs the ballet impeccably, as if it had been choreographed on them. The piece was created on Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and premiered in December, 1996. It received its first PNB performance in January, 2008. But one performance stands out, and like the ballet itself, must not be missed.
As I mentioned in a review of PNB's presentation of Balanchine classics two nights earlier, I recall very well Carla Korbes’s tenure with New York City Ballet, noted her quality of what I described as ‘quiet serenity,’ and wondered whether she would be able to add the necessary fire to her stage persona – or at least the stage persona I remembered – to be a convincing Juliet. I should have known better.
From the moment she appeared onstage until her suicide by self-strangulation (I did say that this production is quirky, didn’t I?), Ms. Korbes’s Juliet was gutsy, edgy, completely enchanting, and impossible to forget. To use an overused cliché, Ms. Korbes was Juliet: she was a headstrong, impetuous, dynamic bundle of energy; a vixen capable of stealing your heart and any other available organs. Hers was a performance to treasure, and one that this viewer will remember as one of the finest of Juliets.
That the performance yesterday afternoon by Kaori Nakamura did not equal that of Ms. Korbes is not a fair comment. Ms. Nakamura was merely exceptionally good, with different performance qualities. Her Juliet came across to this viewer as more cerebral, more subtle, and somewhat less sensual. But that’s merely a matter of degree – it was a very fine performance.
Ms. Korbes and Ms. Nakamura were not alone. There was not a single performance that did not ring true. I noted previously that in Wednesday’s performance of Apollo, Seth Orza lacked the quality of being a god that is a prerequisite for the role. He was too human. But this human quality served Mr. Orza well as Ms. Korbes’s Romeo. His performance was sweet and touching and galvanizing. And he looked very convincing killing himself on the cutting edge of Juliet’s pointed bier – as a fallen cross of light cast a white shadow over the bier, under a starry night sky (I did say that this production is quirky, didn’t I?). The Romeo in Saturday afternoon’s performance was James Moore, who gave a more youthful portrayal than Mr. Orza, but in other respects was equally superb both in character and execution. The role of Lady Capulet is a major force in Mr. Maillot’s vision of the story, and Laura Gilbreath on Friday, and Maria Chapman on Saturday afternoon, delivered appropriately melodramatic and sensational portrayals. William Lin-Yee, who replaced Karel Cruz, was admirable as the tormented Friar Laurence in both performances. As Mercutio, who is clubbed to death by a marionette’s disembodied arm, Jonathan Porretta on Friday and Ezra Thompson at Saturday’s matinee were appropriately aggressive, with Mr. Porretta appearing a bit more polished and Mr. Thompson a bit more impulsive. At both performances, Batkhurel Bold, who Romeo strangles, was very good as Tybalt, and Rachel Foster was a deliciously randy Nurse. Although I cannot individually identify each of the other PNB dancers who performed in each program without converting an already lengthy review into a book, all were wonderful.
I am not at all familiar with Mr. Maillot’s choreographic style, and one ballet does not permit grand generalizations. As I was watching it, I thought I saw some kinship with the style of John Neumeier, and also a little of Maurice Bejart. I found later, on reading the PNB program notes, that Mr. Maillot had danced for the Hamburg Ballet, and had roles created for him by Mr. Neumeier, so some Neumeier influence would not be unusual. I don’t know of a connection to Bejart, although it would not have been surprising for Mr. Maillot to have been familiar with Bejart’s work. I also thought there were Graham influences. I did not sense any indebtedness to classical or neoclassical style (Russian; British; Balanchine). But whether Mr. Maillot’s style is in any way derivative is not significant – based on Romeo et Juliette, his style can be characterized as a synthesis of a multitude of styles that look both lyrical and balletic, and angular and contemporary, at virtually the same time. At one point, the choreography, including the non-stop body and arm and hand movement, looks like it was pasted together by someone suffering from severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; at another point it looks introverted and visually depressing. Part of the performance is danced in pointe shoes or ballet slippers; part of it is danced barefoot. Just when you think you have his style pegged, he changes it. But after the initial shock of seeing something unquantifiable, it all hangs together. And while it is at all times stylistic (in terms of having an intended stylistic impact, whatever the particular style may be), it isn’t in any way ‘mannered’ (as, for example, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s version may be considered to be at times), and doesn’t look artificial – for all the quirky head, hand, and body movement, to this viewer it was surprisingly real.
It is also very intelligently conceived and choreographically executed. Nothing is superfluous. For example, although I do not like Mr. Maillot’s artistic decision to add an overriding religious emphasis to the story, and find that emphasis to be muddy and contradictory, he weaves it into the tapestry of the story skillfully.
The piece opens with Friar Laurence clearly visualized as a tormented Jesus figure in a crucified position, torn by contradictory forces over which he has no control. This concept, exemplified by this introductory image but carried over as ‘asides’ in the course of the piece [Mr. Maillot uses Friar Laurence (and two invented ‘acolytes’) as a combination god-substitute and Greek chorus], is a fundamental problem to me. This god (or representative of god) is omniscient, he knows what’s coming; but he’s also powerless to stop it. So why is he there? [At least as a god-substitute; as a Greek chorus his powerless presence is appropriate.] And if whatever happens is fated, as his tormented presence makes the action appear to be, where is the tragedy (in the classical sense)? And, theologically, if god is not omnipotent, and cannot alter fate, what good is he? Mr. Maillot also insists on sidestepping the action to let Friar Laurence repeatedly express his tortured soul. I could have done without Friar Laurence’s constant angst, and frequently wished he’d just get out of the way.
But even with this concern - and recognizing that Mr. Maillot’s artistic choice, even though I have problems with it, spawns significant, rare, and welcome opportunities for intellectual discourse - it cannot be denied that Mr. Maillot weaves this choice and his concept intriguingly and ingeniously into the piece. For example, Mr. Maillot’s replaces the usual Mandolin Dance with an 'impromptu' street show -- a marionette show, during which the marionettes typically punch each other around. This show rapidly descends into a foreshadowing of the ‘real’ action, and the deaths, to come. And then the puppeteers who pulled the marionettes' strings are revealed to have been Friar Laurence and his acolytes. I don’t know whether the idea of inserting a marionette show into this scene is Mr. Maillot’s original idea (I vaguely recall having seen a marionette show in some prior production, but I can’t identify it, and can’t vouch for the accuracy of my memory), but of greater significance is that the scene is stunningly conceived and executed, and that it seamlessly tracks and amplifies Mr. Maillot’s concept. And it looks far better than the Mandolin Dance in the MacMillan version of the ballet, which to me has always appeared somewhat artificial. That having been said, I must confess that Mr. MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is not only my favorite version of the ballet, but one of my favorite ballets, period. But Mr. Maillot’s version gives it serious competition.
As stated, Mr. Maillot’s conception, and the execution of it by the PNB dancers, is sexually charged. But for all the kissing and body contact, whether ribald or passionate, it is more natural, overall, than as portrayed in any other version of the ballet that this viewer has seen.
For example (and I hate to pick on Mr. MacMillan’s version, since I love it so much), I have always felt that the concept of the three “harlots” in that version is particularly gratuitous (whether true to Shakespeare or not is not the issue). Mr. Maillot does away with the harlots – but not with the sexuality they represent: Mr. Maillot’s has three Montague girls filling the same bawdy function. So, instead of the interaction between the harlots and Romeo and his entourage being portrayed as somewhat tawdry (and looked down upon by the ‘good’ girls in town), here the interaction between Romeo and his friends, and the neighborhood Montague girls, is natural. These are teenagers, doing what teenagers do (or, sigh, what I’m told teenagers do). The street in Verona, where the teenagers in Shakespeare’s story interact, is in Mr. Maillot’s version the equivalent of local streets where teenagers cruise looking for action and/or to sexually act out. Sort of ‘Fast Times at Verona High’. It works. This concept also carries over into the violence between the Montagues and the Capulets. Instead of fights with swords, here there are stylized fist fights: A street brawl in Verona, which might have taken place, if the story had been set in a more contemporary time, in an empty schoolyard on the West Side of New York. And instead of tight fitting jeans, or beach bikinis, the girls are dressed in conservative, but revealing, soft flowing dresses that outline their bodies and then easily get out of the way to reveal ‘bare’ legs. [Romeo et Juliette features a plethora of legs that have a purpose beyond executing steps – they contribute to, and are representative of, the ‘sexually charged’ atmosphere. This visual focus carries into the Capulet Ball. Instead of starched medieval haute couture, the girls are costumed in simple, alluring gowns, slit from the bottom up almost to the waist.]
Also natural is the portrayal of the physical interaction between Romeo and Juliet. While just as emotionally thrilling as it is in other versions (though perhaps a bit less cathartic), these are teenagers who not only have a visible emotional response to each other; they get physical. Under the circumstances, what’s portrayed is restrained and beautiful. I liked the way Romeo and Juliet run their hands along each other’s bodies, their clothing like wrapping paper for a special gift, outlining each other’s form as if trying to measure what is more than they can actually see. And I particularly loved the repeated image of each of them gently but wondrously sliding his or her hand down the other’s face; representative, to me, that their passion is for the other as a person, and that this passion includes a need to fully comprehend, and to be united with, the other. This ‘unity’ concept is also brilliantly executed in the ‘wedding’ scene. A rectangular piece of cloth (it must have been some sort of cloth-like pliable plastic, since it maintained its various shapes) is carried through the scene as a romantic, lyrical symbol. But it also is used functionally. The cloth, held over the couples’ heads by the acolytes as Friar Laurence performs the ‘ceremony’, acts like a chuppah or similar religious/cultural enclosure under which the couple is blessed. When the ceremony ends, the cloth is twisted, once, and both ends held together. The form created is a Mobius Strip – an object that has no front, no back, no beginning, and no end; it is a unity. I don’t know whether this was Mr. Maillot’s intent, but it is a simple, beautiful, and profound image.
Other images are equally exquisite. For example, on two occasions Romeo ‘lifts’ Juliet up from a prone position solely by the power of the touch of his finger or his kiss. The second time is when Juliet is (or seems to him to be) dead. Romeo kisses her, and her body rises off the bed apparently resurrected solely by the force of that kiss, only to fall back down. Marvelous.
To touch, briefly, on other highlights of this production (I could easily spend pages reviewing this ballet in minute detail) – in this version Juliet is portrayed (again, naturally) as just as sexually motivated as Romeo. In the bedroom scene following Tybalt’s death, for instance, she is more the aggressor than he – she practically pushes him into bed. Indeed, this scene, in other respects, is a prequel to the scene as portrayed in the MacMillan version. There, immediately following the violence resulting in the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, the next scene opens with Romeo and Juliet in her bed, having already made love. In Mr. Maillot’s version, the next scene opens with Juliet being informed by her Nurse of her cousin’s death, and that Romeo killed him. Feeling appropriately angry, confused, and perhaps betrayed, upon seeing Romeo, she confronts him, strikes him, beats her fists against him. But the storm subsides, to be succeeded by the overwhelming love for him that Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment cannot alter. Again, more natural, more real, and more honest.
Aside from the alteration to the role of Friar Laurence, Mr. Maillot made other notable, and basic, changes to the story as we usually see it. There is no Lord Capulet. Instead, Lady Capulet fills the function that her husband would in other productions. She is the matriarch. She hosts the ball. She arranges Juliet’s marriage to Paris. She orders Juliet to comply. She lashes out at her uncooperative daughter, and at terrible fate. It’s not easy being a single mom. But not being married – at least not to a body in the cast – has a different virtue: it makes her association with Tybalt, and her overwhelming grief at Tybalt’s death, more…natural. As may be gleaned from these descriptions, this production is significantly female-oriented, as well as having what this viewer considers to be an overall ‘female’ sensibility. In that sense, it seems particularly French.
Finally, Mr. Maillot makes significant use of symbols (beyond the 'cross' references). For example, I’ve mentioned that in this version, Romeo strangles Tybalt, and Juliet strangles herself. While the former may be considered ‘realistic’, albeit different, to this viewer it is more symbolic. Romeo strangles Tybalt using Mercutio’s bloody shirt. But why would Mercutio have a bloody shirt – he was clubbed to the head? More clearly, Juliet strangles herself in Romeo’s blood – drawn from his dead body. It’s virtually impossible to strangle oneself, much less with blood. In this viewer’s opinion these are symbols of the larger relationship and mutual dependence of the characters in the story (both generally and specifically), and, in Romeo and Juliet’s case, of the unity that has been severed. But whether I’m right or wrong – the point is that Mr. Maillot’s concept is endlessly intriguing.
The production also owes its success in large part to the vision of its Scenic Designer, Ernest Pignon-Ernest, its Costume Designer, Jerome Kaplan, and its Lighting Designer, Dominique Drillot. The sets – essentially, white, curved, rectangular dividers of various dimensions, and a diagonal piece (like a sliding pond, only classy) that acts as a dramatic counterpoint to the large dividers, and that serves multiple purposes – including being used as Juliet’s balcony, from which she slides to and fro, and from which she is lifted down. It is a delightful concept. Mr. Kaplan’s costumes are extraordinarily beautiful, mutedly colorful, and gloriously sensual. And the lighting adds delicacy and impact (as with the image of the 'fallen' cross projected sideways on Juliet’s deathbed). Credit must also be given to the impeccable staging, by Gaby Baars, Bernice Coppieters, and Giovanna Lorenzoni.
An aside. Many, many (…many) years ago, I was privileged to see Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. That production was a landmark of stagecraft, and one that left vivid and indelible memories. Although they are very different (certainly, at least, as different as comedy is from tragedy), Mr. Maillot’s innovative production reminds me in many ways of the artistic innovation of Mr. Brook’s celebrated production in terms of its idiosyncratic style, the purity and simplicity of its presentation (although it is not the sole color palate that Mr. Maillot uses, the ballet’s essential ‘color’ is white, which was the only color, as I recall, used in Mr. Brook’s production), and its visual and emotional impact .
The quality of the conducting, by Music Director and Principal Conductor Emil de Cou, must also be recognized. In this production, the pacing of the musical performance, which is directed by the conductor, is not dependent upon a dancer’s speed and capability, but is dictated by Mr. Maillot’s concept. Parts of the Prokofiev score are conducted at a faster pace than we usually see (at times almost hysterically fast – but that speed matches the mood that Mr. Maillot is trying to set), and parts at a deliberately slow pace (to match parts where Mr. Maillol’s choreography is executed in slow-motion – or at times freeze-frame). Consequently, the usual barometer of the quality of a ballet conductor – the need to adjust the pace of the music to take into account what the dancer is doing on stage, was not a significant factor. That consideration aside - and except for a few off-notes at Friday’s performance, for which the conductor is not responsible - the PNB orchestra under Mr. de Cou’s direction sounded fabulous.
For balletomaniacs like me without the ability to travel to see productions not performed in New York, PNB’s performances of Romeo et Juliette have been a revelation. PNB deserves to be commended not only for the quality of its performances of it, but for bringing it here in the first place. Suffice it to say that although one PNB performance of the Balanchine classics, to this viewer, was sufficient, three performances of Romeo et Juliette are not nearly enough, and I would welcome the opportunity to see this company return to New York, soon, to dance Romeo et Juliette again, as well as other ballets in its repertoire.
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