This past weekend, I took a trip up to Seattle and got to experience the wonder that is Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Romeo et Juliette. It was a production totally worth the trip.
Truth: Romeo and Juliet has never been my favorite ballet. Despite the witty music by Prokofiev that accompanies the ballet wonderfully conducted with acerbic bite and lush overtones by conductor Stewart Kershaw, I’ve become so numb to the overtold plot. The characters are just a tad precious and one-dimensional victims blamed on a closed-minded society. The Elizabethan costumes feel outdated, and Romeo and Juliet spend an awful lot of time running around the stage, emoting, either alone or with each other.
The PNB production changes all of this for me, and more. It reminds me that it truly is a timeless story, with a wealth of untold beauty still left to discover. Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot ingeniously uses a seamless mixture of gestures, ballet, and sharply modern angles to tell a richly detailed and dramatic story.Â With its sleek and minimal sets by Ernest Pignon-Ernest and lighting by Dominique Drillot, this production solves the problem of bringing this overdone story of Romeo and Juliet into a production that the modern ADHD blockbuster loving audience will clamor to see. And so it succeeds.
Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot made this ballet read more like a well-written novel, rather than a ballet where characters and plot are mere vehicles for spectacular dancing. The result is a production that’s smart, ingenious, heartfelt, dramatically tragic, and wickedly funny. The ballet opens grippingly with the freakishly weird Friar Lawrence, danced deliciously by Karel Cruz, a character torn with the responsibility and burden of playing a vital part in this tragedy. Romeo lies dead on the side. Friar Lawrence’s mouth opens in a horrified, soundless scream at the horrific results. This opener brings to mind the prologue of the Shakespearean play, where the conclusion is presented before the play flashes back to the events leading to the conclusion. Themes of fate and destiny and chance are reflected in his tortured movements, and at one point, he tries to stop the sets as they move around the stage, as if trying to prevent the deadly ending.
Juliet danced by Carla Korbes, is not the typical Juliet, naÃ¯ve and virginal, unaware of her entry into womanhood and marriageability, a sacrificial lamb in the hands of fate and family pride. This Juliet is the one who first spots Romeo in the crowd. Sheâ€™s the one who, after escaping his advances, runs to him and makes the first move to kiss him. In an emotional climax in the balcony pas de deux, Romeo slides through her legs and she flings herself back in a gorgeous moment of vulnerable and eager surrender (photo above). Dancing before the bed in the bedroom scene, she reaches urgently towards the bed first as they are spinning around in the throes of young love, and lays seductively on the bed to urge him to join her. Korbesâ€™ Juliet is a woman with spirit and wit, and for the first time, I believed that this is a Juliet that could have the brains and courage to participate in such a risky plan. Korbesâ€™ performance is one of the moment with every moment fresh and new, perfused with thrilling spontaneity and heartbreaking determination.
Romeo and his friends act as a lot of college boys that I know, and they arenâ€™t the gentlemen or as old-fashioned as they are sometimes made out to be. Theyâ€™re hormonal, passionate, moody, and have fiery tempers that flare at alarming rates. Romeo, danced with boyish vulnerability by Lucien Postlewaite, hesitates at first in the balcony pas de deux thatâ€™s refreshingly awkward, hesitant, ecstatic, and more than a little erotic. He reveals his uncertainty, insecurity, and doesnâ€™t always know what he wants. He cops a feel during the normally pure and ideal balcony pas de deux (ah, young love), and gently and wholeheartedly grows into the passionate lover who stumbles onto the love of a lifetime. When he kills Tybalt, he seems to lose it as he kills with unspeakable violence. Mercutio is the class clown who knows no bounds where everything is a joke. Harassing the nurse, he accidentally ends up palpating Tybalt’s pecs instead. He doesnâ€™t realize when things go too far, leading to his self-destructive tragic demise. Jonathan Porretta skyrockets through the air as Mercutio, giving him a heart of fire in an explosive performance that’s unexpectedly heartfelt as well.
There are many more noteworthy characters to mention. Lady Capulet and Tybalt, danced by Ariana Lallone and Batkhurel Bold, represent the stern and severe Capulet family. Lalloneâ€™s tall lines give Lady Capulet a regal, proper air that leaves no room for love in her daughterâ€™s plan for marriage. Bold, as Tybalt, was an intimidating force. And was I the only one who imagined a disturbing incestuous relationship between Lady Capulet and her nephew?? Jeffrey Stanton as Paris sniffs Juliet in a creepy manner in a brief moment near her, revealing himself to not quite be the ideal husband material as Juliet’s mother made him out to be. Carrie Imler took over the stage as the nurse who was both sassy and motherly.
Maillot’s richly cinematicÂ Romeo et Juliette proved to be that classics never grow old. Classics were never meant to be museums of tradition or to be coddled, but to be infused with fresh intellect, humor, and emotion. Audiences want to be swept up and entertained as well as intellectually challenged, and this moving production wildly succeeded. This production is a rare jewel that deserves to be seen again and again.