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Breaking Our Hearts

Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Romeo et Juliette'

by Dean Speer

February 2, 2013 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washginton

The audience rose in one accord as the curtain lifted to reveal Carla Körbes and Seth Orza, glistening from having given us two and an half hours of their considerable all during Jean-Christophe Maillot’s contemporary take on Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Roméo et Juliette.”

I like how the production opens with credits rolling by on a scrim during the overture, yet I would have reversed the cast listing, and gone from lowest to highest in terms of character rank as Körbes’ name received a loud [and unexpected] ovation when it came on the scrim, but the enthusiasm and strength of the applause noticeably diminished as the credits continued to progress until it got to the point where you could tell the near-capacity crowd was thinking, “Who’s that? Okay, I guess I should clap for them too in order to be polite and inclusive.” Better to have listed each and then very last, “...and [name] as Juliette.” More of a build-up and less painful for lower-ranked mortals to bear. Worse, the audience cacophony successfully obliterated the orchestra's work during much of the prelude.

This cast was primed, pumped, and ready for some serious ballet. Maillot does not shy from giving us the unrefined emotions of youth, some hot-blooded and ready to pick a fight or going out of control in a rage as when Roméo kills Tybalt.

Trying to give us “natural” movement and reactions is an interesting premise and works for the most part, yet I find myself thinking that in order to achieve this effect, Maillot has had to come up with a vocabulary that is just as stylized – if not more so -- as the ballet steps he assiduously avoids. At other times, such as with groups, he lets the steps speak for themselves and the incorporation of ballet steps seems not at all imposed but natural and very successful. The pirouettes, beats, jumps, turns, and partnering work well and don’t deter or detract from moving the story line forward.

With the exception of a conflicted, remorseful, tortured Friar Laurence [Karel Cruz] who feels terrible about the whole affair [as he should], the main characters are depicted as essentially one-dimensional. Juliette’s mother is very aware of power and also appears to have had perhaps more than a casual acquaintance with Paris, her daughter’s very suitor. Laura Gilbreath’s Lady Capulet thrusts and stabs, moans and groans under the weight of these and numerous other actions.

These cardboard characters provide a huge contrast to and backdrop for the “soft” and tender love of the title characters, especially effective in the Balcony Pas de deux. Hair touseled, Orza looked like a teenager out on the prowl for a fun time on the town with his buddies, but quickly matures as matters devolve quickly out of his control. Körbes has that marvelous “je ne sais quoi” ability to imbue her characters with depth and to make each gesture and step important, projecting and reflecting the complexity of not only her Juliettte but expressing the greater overarching tragedy.

Goateed Ezra Thomson had just the right earthy appearance and tone as Mercutio, playing with his buddies, until he also finds himself suddenly serious and at the wrong end of a cudgel. Buddy Benvolio [Benjamin Griffiths] took part in this fun and his dancing was ever clear, athletic and perfect.

This is a ballet that requires 100 percent of the entire cast's strength and commitment.

The PNB Orchestra, under the watchful eye and baton of Emil de Cou, sounded great, supporting and accompanying this ballet with the Prokofiev score that evokes and provokes images, transporting us to a time and place that never was but which exists only as it unfolds at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

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