American Repertory Ballet
New Brunswick, New Jersey
October 11, 2013
“Romeo and Juliet”
-- by Jerry Hochman
When I previously reviewed American Repertory Ballet’s new production of “Romeo and Juliet,” choreographed by its Artistic Director, Douglas Martin, it was somewhat of a work in progress, and was presented at a venue that cramped the staging. The ballet had its formal premiere on Friday at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ, and with a larger stage, finished choreography, sets and costumes, and a live orchestra, the promise of that preview has been fulfilled.
Mr. Martin’s concept of this production is ambitious: his “Romeo and Juliet” is no different from other ‘major’ productions of the ballet presented by larger companies with larger budgets, except that it’s on a compact scale and relies as much on his dancers’ hearts as on their technical abilities. As such, it is a small miracle: a choreographic rendering of the story that is both simply-told and compelling, that inspires his dancers to, and beyond, whatever technical limitations they may have, and that moves an audience that already knows the story just by what it sees on stage.
As I observed previously, Mr. Martin is particularly adept at choreographing stage-spanning activity. When the action takes place in the Verona piazza, every inch of the stage (even the larger, State Theater stage) is full of movement, but it never looks busy. For example, the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ scene, which I find far superior to the ‘street wedding’ in the familiar production by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, is crowded, but appropriately so. More significantly, the ‘show’ put on by the players, and the interaction between the players and the townsfolk, allows for considerable choreographic variety, and is both realistic and well-executed. Particularly noteworthy are the swordfight scenes, which are every bit as accomplished now, both choreographically and as executed by the dancers, as I observed them to be previously. They’re as good as they are because they don’t look choreographed – although of course they are, and they don’t look choreographed because Mr. Martin largely restricts the fighting, at least until the culmination of the fight, to one or two pairs of combatants, so there’s no sense of a ‘mass’ synchronization of swordplay. This lack of any sense of being ‘programmed’ applies not only to the movement quality, but to variations in the story it usually unfolds. In Mr. Martin’s version, one of the villagers killed in the initial swordfight is a girl. It’s calculated to engender a greater emotional response from the viewer than to limit injury to the combatants alone, and it works.
Similarly, the ballroom scene is a model of powerful group movement on a small scale, but it allows intricate gestures that are almost, but not quite, throwaways. For example, this Romeo and Juliet do not first see each other from across a crowded room, or by one accidentally – or accidentally on purpose – bumping into the other. Here, Juliet spies Romeo, and he her, while she is dancing with her. Both react subtly, but the seed of interest has been planted and the brief encounter looks less ‘staged’ than in other versions.
Beyond mass movement, Mr. Martin’s choreography for the primary characters remains essentially as it was at the April, 2014 preview, and it satisfies the essential prerequisites for a successful performance: it is challenging for the dancers, but not beyond their capabilities, it is visually interesting to watch; and most importantly, it successfully moves the audience. For example, and as I observed last Spring, the choreography he has created for Mercutio, Benvolio, and the three ‘harlots’ is both exuberant and spontaneous, and the duets between Juliet and Romeo – in particular, the emotionally critical balcony scene – are choreographed, and were executed, with the combination of rapture and conviction, that quality of being genuine, that is necessary to make the audience feel what the dancers feel, and to respond with the cathartic release that prompts appreciative, as opposed to obligatory, applause. Even relatively insignificant dances are reimagined and improved. For instance, the dance for Juliet’s ‘Girlfriends’ when they enter her bedroom to awaken her for her wedding to Paris, instead of some sort of disconnected ‘good morning’ dance, or ‘Juliet’s-getting-married-so-why-don’t-we-dance-for-her-even-though-she’s-asleep-and-can’t-see-us dance,‘ the dance as Mr. Martin displays it is clearly connected to the imminent wedding – the girls play with the dress that Juliet will wear to her wedding, and imagine what it would look and feel like on them.
I noted several differences between Friday’s premiere production and the preview. First and foremost, the larger stage allows the production to breathe, and cures many of the ills that I had previously observed. There is room, now, for the corps to move about the stage in the background without being conspicuously and awkwardly frozen. Consequently, there is no sense that dancers are marking time when the choreographic attention is focused elsewhere. And even where the dancers in last Spring’s performance were in motion, the greater performing space now allows them to move more freely and expansively, yielding a more thrilling impression. For example, Mercutio was permitted not just to dance ebulliently, but to fly.
Additionally, I had noted previously that the choreography (and acting) for certain of the featured, but tangential characters was underdeveloped. Not any more. The Nurse, the Duke of Verona, Paris, and Friar Laurence appeared to have been given more to do (or, with the larger stage, what they did became more apparent). They’re now real characters, not cardboard adjuncts.
Finally, the use of a full set (minimal though it may be) mandated other changes. For example, the ballet’s beginning (when Romeo is courting Rosaline) was forgettable. Now, however, Romeo playfully tosses stones at Rosaline’s house to encourage her to come outside, which gives the brief scene some needed context (although it’s a little too close to Albrecht and Giselle). And in the Act I balcony pas de deux, there is now a balcony onto which Romeo romantically lifts Juliet as the pas de deux concludes. It’s a perfect ending to the scene, and every bit as emotionally moving as having Juliet and Romeo reach toward each other after Juliet sprints up a winding staircase to her balcony.
But the larger stage also revealed some drawbacks. The compressed space in the previous performance I saw focused the action on Romeo and Juliet, and the choreography for them filled the viewing space. With a larger stage, at certain points the pas de deux looks lost, traveling back and forth across the stage for no reason. [Other versions of Romeo and Juliet do the same thing, but ‘cover’ it with more choreographic variety.] And in the bedroom scene, after Romeo departs, Juliet is seen looking/yearning for him with the same extended arm and facial expression repeated too many times and from too many different positions on the stage. The problem here is generated by the limitations of the set: there’s no ‘window’ from which Romeo departs, so there’s no window to which Juliet is drawn to look for him – Romeo’s just ‘out there’ somewhere. Indeed, in that regard, without clear entrance and exit points, characters are required to enter and exit via the wings or from behind a piece of scenery (e.g., Tybalt sort of wanders onto the piazza in the first scene; Juliet somehow comes down from her balcony and emerges from behind it as the balcony pas de deux begins; Romeo enters the crypt by suddenly ‘appearing’ from behind the bier).
But in the overall scheme of things, these are minor criticisms, and largely a product of budgetary restraints that limited the complexity of the sets. And although the presence of a live orchestra, as opposed to a familiar ‘fixed’ recording, may have created some relatively insignificant timing issues (for example, a critical moment in Romeo’s swordfight with Tybalt was not in sync with the music), the presence of the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra added immeasurably to the evening’s success. Under the leadership of conductor Kynan Johns, the orchestra treated the audience to a quality concert that enhanced and complemented the performance on stage, but that did not overwhelm it.
Although there were a few significant cast changes, most of the dancers were the same as had performed in the preview I saw last Spring, and they danced as well or better than they did before.
Karen Leslie Moscato and Mattia Pallozzi reprised their roles as Juliet and Romeo. Ms. Moscato, a product of the Princeton Ballet School (ARB’s affiliated school), was both appropriately youthful and technically accomplished (and demonstrated the same affinity for bourrees that I observed previously). Although I would have appreciated more nuanced acting (she still seems to be just as happy to be dancing with Paris in Act I as she is with Romeo, even after she meets Romeo, and during the bedroom scene following Tybalt’s death, Romeo’s banishment and imminent departure doesn’t register on her face until halfway through the scene), this is not critical. What is critical is to make her love for Romeo believable: that is, to convey rapture convincingly both through her execution of Mr. Martin’s choreography and her acting, and in this respect Ms. Moscato continues to shine. And her ‘scream’ upon recognizing that Romeo is dead is still spine-tingling. [There are many stage screams that percolate through this production and foreshadow Juliet’s final emotional explosion – by the Duke of Verona following the initial swordfight, by Lady Capulet after Tybalt’s death, by Lord Capulet upon losing control of his wife and his daughter (similar to the characterization given to Lord Capulet by Peter Martins in his production for the New York City Ballet) – but Juliet’s ‘scream’ is the collected culmination of them all.]
Mr. Pallozzi’s portrayal has improved significantly since the Spring performance. He’s more accomplished technically (his execution is cleaner in every respect, and the ‘rough edges’ I noticed previously are less pronounced), and he still conveys the passion, tempered by sweetness and sincerity, that he so convincingly displayed at the April performance. He’s still the ‘Romeo next door’. Mr. Pallozzi was particularly impressive in his partnering of Ms. Moscato, including his mastery of Mr. Martin’s complex shoulder lifts, twists, and turns. He (and Ms. Moscato) made everything look natural and unforced. And I must confess that I thought he was going to drop Ms. Moscato as he transported her from the stage floor onto her balcony at the conclusion of the balcony pas de deux, but he pulled it off. [The maneuver involves not just an overhead lift with Mr. Pallozzi’s body supporting the lift, but a simultaneous transport away from his body to the balcony – so when he delivers Ms. Moscato to the balcony, he has to hold her above him supported only by his arms.]
Alexander Dutko and Stephen Campanella also repeated their performances as Mercutio and Benvolio. Both gave finely textured portrayals, combining bravado with sensitivity, but Mr. Dutko made the most of his more choreographically flashy role and was particularly impressive. [My only suggestion for improvement would be that it’s ok to actually kiss the girls on the lips, rather than give them pecks on the cheek.]
In Mr. Martin’s version the three harlots are specifically identified as companions of one of the lead men. [Perhaps in the future he might consider identifying them not as harlots, with all the unnecessary baggage that that word carries, but as friends (particularly since they’re not characters in Shakespeare’s play).] Samantha Gullace and Shaye Firer repeated their roles as Romeo’s and Mercutio’s companions, and Nanako Yamamoto (replacing Euphrosyne Avery, who danced the role in April) played Benvolio’s. Each of them danced with appropriate exuberance and flamboyance, and Ms. Yamamoto should be commended for dancing the role as well as she did on relatively short notice. As was the case in April, however, Ms. Firer was the most naturally vivacious of them all. Whatever the role, her performances look natural, rather than artificially pasted-on. Ms. Gullace, Ms. Firer, and Ms. Yamamoto also did double-duty as Juliet’s ‘Girlfriends’, together with Alice Cao and Clair van Bever.
Aside from the referenced lead dancers, those who were given most dancing to do were the Commedia dell’Arte players, who were in virtual constant motion during their performance within the performance: Ms. van Bever, Cameron Auble-Branigan, Ms. Cao, and Edward Urwin repeated their roles as, respectively, Columbina, Arlecchino and the Inamorati, and Marc St.-Pierre danced Pantalone. If anything, they were even more accomplished and effervescent than they were in the preview performance.
Whether a result of changes in the choreography or improvement in execution (or perhaps because the larger stage enabled a more expansive presentation), Andrea D’Anunzio gave a performance as Juliet’s Nurse that was considerably improved from the preview. It was a polished, engaging portrayal. Also improved was Mr. Urwin’s Paris, who appeared less bland and showed more character than he did previously. Jacobo Janelli reprised his fine low-decibel performance as Tybalt.
Taking over the roles of Lady and Lord Capulet were Trinette Singleton and the choreographer. Ms. Singleton, whom I had not seen on stage since her performances with the Joffrey Ballet in New York (and who doesn’t look much changed) delivered a powerful but relatively controlled performance. By that I mean that her response to Tybalt’s death was more than hysteria – there was inner turmoil beneath the surface, and this inner turmoil exploded when her husband attempted to intervene in her ‘private’ grief. [As I noted previously, Mr. Mr. Martin has made Lady Capulet’s response to Tybalt’s death a clearer reflection of some relationship, other than familial, between Lady Capulet and Tybalt. Here, as Lord Capulet approaches his grieving wife, she rises from Tybalt’s body and forcibly pushes Lord Capulet away, as if to say ‘you don’t belong here; you don’t know anything about how I feel; this is my private agony’. Very nicely done.] As her husband, Mr. Martin was an imposing human volcanic mountain, boiling over with frustration and pain as he loses control of his wife and his daughter.
The role of the Duke of Verona in this production is limited – he appears only at the end of the opening scene to respond to the carnage. But Gary Echternacht’s rage and frustration at the continuing violence between the Capulet and Montague houses and the deaths before him, reflected in his bone-curdling silent scream, could be felt in every corner of the theater. His was a brief, but outstanding performance. As Friar Laurence, Ken Samoil delivered a fine, low-key performance that was perfectly appropriate for the role.
The cast was completed by Tullio Cata as one of the Capulet servants, and Ball Guests Michelle Amor, Elisabeth Hekmann, Valentina Palladino, and Allison Piccone.
But as fine as the choreography, cast and orchestra were, what ultimately may be the most significant aspect of Friday’s performance was the audience. From my vantage point, the house was packed. And it was filled with people who were there not to see ‘culture,’ or because they were committed to an art form, but simply to be entertained. This was not a New York audience – there was little in the way of overt sophistication (pseudo or otherwise), reverential deference, conspicuous displays of opinion, or sense of entitlement. Although there was a smattering of company personnel (teachers; students), relatives of dancers, and a vocal block of fans of the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, this was largely an audience comprised of 'ordinary people', including parents and grandparents escorting children, local dancers (and would-be dancers), and teenagers. To me, and except for the children, the audience seemed similar to the audiences that reportedly sat, or stood, through performances of Shakespeare's plays at the Globe Theater. Many in Friday's audience seemed not to know what to expect, and for them this performance was a special event – a stretch. That they were enthralled by what they saw was clear, and the standing ovation that greeted the cast and orchestra at the performance’s conclusion was enthusiastic and genuine. Consequently, at the very least, Friday’s audience, and its reaction to ARB’s performance, demonstrates that there’s an audience out there that is open to seeing dance performances that are crafted with expertise and danced with passion, that don’t require a small fortune to attend, that are local, and that speak to them.