REVIEW: Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Roméo et Juliette at City Center
For some, Romeo and Juliet is a story of love. For others, it is a tale of tragic fate. But in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production, which ran last weekend at City Center, it is primarily a story of adolescence — which provides a duly tormented backdrop for the story’s central conflicts.
Not intended to be a faithful telling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot’s version eliminates swords, Renaissance sets, and even a few roles to focus on painting emotional portraits of the main characters, while relying on Prokofiev’s episodic score to advance the plot.
Like the play, the ballet begins on a portentous note, with a wiry Friar Laurence (William Lin-Yee) flanked by two fictitious acolytes. Supporting the anguished cleric in poses that invoke Christ’s Passion, the acolytes, according to a program note, are intended to represent the friar’s conflicted state of being as his good intentions pave their tragic path.
The following scene introduces the Montagues and Capulets — richly costumed in shimmering neutrals and deep jewel tones, respectively — but with the spotlight on Romeo (Seth Orza) and his prurient posse, it’s clear that these lads would rather fondle than feud.
Only Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, commandingly portrayed by Batkhurel Bold, appears to bear the weight of the ancient rivalry on his imposing frame — with Jonathan Porretta’s mischievous Mercutio and Laura Gilbreath’s sultry Lady Capulet adding just enough fuel to the fire.
There is a fine line between tragedy and absurdity, and as it took nothing less than a Shakespeare to write the tale as the former, it also takes skilled interpreters to keep it from lapsing into the latter.
Otherwise, the hatred between these noble families is a background tension, effectively embodied by the corps, against which timeless adolescent conflicts play out. A minimalist set by French painter Ernest Pignon-Ernest, a frequent collaborator in Mr. Maillot’s stripped-down story ballets, calls further attention to the emotional and psychological complexities at this version’s core
Known for a sleek neoclassicism that fits PNB like a glove, Mr. Maillot punctuates his choreography with plenty of jagged edges and contemporary flair. He also throws in frequent phallic innuenda, rude Italian hand gestures and breast-groping galore — which, however genuinely adolescent, at times seem gratuitous on the balletic stage.
By design, however, Mr. Maillot’s story ballets are as much about theater as they are about dance; in a recent interview, he said one reason he’s taken them on is to remedy what he sees as a “chronic disconnect” between story and steps. There is no place for unintentional movement in his work, and though his Romeo et Juliette may lack Kenneth MacMillan’s sensitive musicality, it compensates with an aching authenticity.
The litmus test for authenticity is the story itself, which is really quite ridiculous, when you think about it: over the course of a few days, two teenagers meet, instantly fall in love, elope, fake death and then actually die for each other — resolving an age-old feud while they’re at it.
There is a fine line between tragedy and absurdity, and as it took nothing less than a Shakespeare to write the tale as the former, it also takes skilled interpreters to keep it from lapsing into the latter. Fortunately for the production, Mr. Orza and the enchanting Carla Körbes interpret the title roles with such emotion that the rest of the story unfolds naturally from its central, if improbable premise: their love.
As Juliet, Ms. Körbes embodies the teenage girl’s signature combination of shy playfulness, fierce determination and reckless abandon. Presented at the masked ball in a shimmering gold dress, she is love in its purest form — mature enough to harbor complex, adult feelings, but still too innocent to tame or conceal them. Reaching for her Romeo in ecstasy, pounding her fists in anger, and silently screaming in agony, she conjures what it feels like to experience love, betrayal and grief for the first time.
As Romeo, Mr. Orza skillfully depicts a more conflicted character, but all his torment disappears — if only momentarily — in the rapturous balcony scene. Indecisive and effeminate by nature, Romeo suddenly mans up in a display of virtuosic spins and jumps, elated to feel clarity about something for perhaps the first time in his life. Catching Juliet’s foot in his hand at the end of their pas de deux, he rubs his head from her ankle up to her lips in a gesture of tender worship.
So intense and sincere was the chemistry between Ms. Körbes and Mr. Orza that they remained hand-in-hand and grim-faced right through the final curtain call — as if in the last hour, they really had experienced the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt (a scene worth noting for its rich symbolism and cinematic, slow-motion drama); one night of passion in Juliet’s bed chamber; Romeo’s exile; Juliet’s betrothal to Paris; and worst of all, their own suicides.
Or perhaps the dancers had simply relived their own adolescences, which for many would be sufficient to render any tragicomedy authentic.