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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 12, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 07
Pacific Northwest Ballet presents Maillot's Romeo et Juliette
Arts & Entertainment
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Pacific Northwest Ballet presents Maillot's Romeo et Juliette

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
ROMEO ET JULIETTE
MUSIC: SERGEI PROKOFIEV
CHOREOGRAPHY:
JEAN-CHRISTOPHE MAILLOT
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
February 5
(through February 14)


I know it takes years of arduous training to be a ballet dancer, but it must also be a world of fun to dance the way PNB's delightful crew was dancing on the opening night of Romeo et Juliette at McCaw Hall. This is a story about young people - their love, honor, enthusiasm, humor - and choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot takes full advantage of the dancers' youthful energy.

In the town square scenes (we know it's Verona, but in this version it could be anywhere) the entire company is bustling around, flirting, fighting, joking, forming pairs, trios, quartets, then fading back while the main characters dance out the story - the Capulets in black and maroon, the Montagues in lighter shades of blue and beige. If you don't recall the plot you had better read the program notes. Maillot's version leaves out so many key elements of the play that it might be hard to follow a tale in which the son and daughter of rival families fall in love, get married secretly, and trigger a sequence of events that leads to their deaths. How it all happens is murky. Friar Laurence takes on a larger role than in Shakespeare's tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, but we don't see his failure to warn Romeo of the only thing that explains Romeo's despair and suicide - that Juliette is not dead but only sleeping. Because of this missing plot point everyone seems subject to tragic Fate rather than to the irreconcilable hatred between powerful families.

But oh, well - who cares? You don't go to this ballet for the narrative, but for the emotions, the music, and the fabulous dancing. The audience is swept up in the excitement of being young, strong, silly, ambitious, frustrated, and in love. James Moore's ardent Romeo and Noelani Pantastico's playful Juliette describe the immortal joy of young love in their meeting at the Capulet's ball. Maillot has them enact the famous encounter sonnet, 'If I profane with my unworthiest hand&' in such detail that the soul of Shakespeare suddenly infuses the scene as the two young lovers show us 'palm to palm is holy palmer's kiss.'

Their balcony scene is equally expressive as the privacy of their encounter allows them to enter fully into the throes of discovery - Romeo practically faints with astonishment, throwing himself onto the floor and sliding to her like a bouquet of flowers flung at her feet. Juliette is far from the shy, tentative figure we often see in the play - and the one made famous in the Kenneth Macmillan hyper-romantic staging of Prokofiev's alluring music. Instead she is coltish and impulsive, as aggressive in her attraction to Romeo as he is to her. I confess that I missed the elegant romance of the Macmillan version - one I have seen many times - but I enjoyed Maillot's commitment to the lovers' unsophisticated abandon. They looked every bit the fourteen or fifteen year olds they are in the play as they approached each other and jumped away, breaking down barriers of parental disapproval and social rigidity with each round of bird-like courting display - patterns that Maillot repeats in tragic mode as they choose to be together in death at the end.

Prokofiev's music is the perfect medium for this bubbling cauldron of joyous and tragic dance, in which everyone is young. Juliette's mother, the Nurse, Friar Laurence - all are performed by dancers as young and lithe as the heroes, and there are no other adult Capulets, Montagues, or authority figures in Maillot's version of Verona. This distinct absence of older and wiser heads goes some way toward explaining the tragedy, but it led to some confusion in Act I about who was who. Is that girl acting silly Juliette or the Nurse? Is that woman in black Tybalt's sister or his mother? And that very handsome fellow with two servants in white - is he hankering after Juliette himself? The episodes don't quite connect, so you just sit back and enjoy the music and dancing while waiting for the details to resolve themselves.

One great pleasure is that Maillot's choreography particularly favors the young men - an unusual phenomenon in story ballets. They leap, roll, and clown around with the infectious brio of a herd of young stallions. I particularly enjoyed the trio of Romeo, Benvolio (Benjamin Griffiths), and Mercutio (Jonathan Poretta), whose perfect match in height and body type made their trios especially powerful as they executed sequences of steps and leaps in exact simultaneity. I also enjoyed the way Maillot extracts group movement out of an apparent crowd of individuals, suddenly showing us pairs or quartets where there were meandering citizens before.

And while I'm not a big fan of interpolations, I found that another impressive element to this Romeo et Juliette was the role of Friar Laurence (Miles Pertl) and his two white-clad acolytes (Kyle Davis and Price Suddarth). Pertl danced Friar Laurence with the passionate commitment of one who knows he is carrying the moral weight of the tragedy, and who also knows he will cause the death of those he hopes to save. Maillot's addition to the story brought a great deal of depth in a sequence of dance pantomimes, using the elegant, romantic movement he largely withholds from the rest of the ballet. The broad, passionate gestures of the three dancers, which at times suggested the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, reminded the audience that despite the exuberant music a tragic ending is inevitable. Since Friar Laurence was himself young, I got the sense that his wisdom was dearly bought by the deaths of Romeo and Juliette.

Jean-Christophe Maillot's choreography is entirely new to me and a wonderful discovery. I came to opening night certain that I had seen this performance before, but in fact the last Romeo and Juliet I saw at PNB was Kent Stowell's version, done to a constructed score of various Tchaikovsky works. Now that PNB has the Maillot production - complete with compelling scenic design by Ernest Pignon-Ernest and gorgeous costumes by Jeróme Kaplan, both recreated from the original Monte Carlo Ballet production - it is unlikely that we will see the Stowell version again. Since Prokofiev's music has become the iconic voice of this immortal story, I'm glad Seattle has a beautiful, textured production to look forward to in the years ahead.

I only wish the production did not begin with the cast list being projected onto a movie screen at the start of the dance. Seattle audiences are so sentimental that they applaud every name as it comes up, completely ruining the overture that Emil de Cou and the valiant orchestra are playing. I'll bet the patrons of the Monte Carlo Ballet are not so corny as to applaud names, which is probably why the designer projected names with confidence. But then ballet-goers in Monte Carlo probably don't whistle through their teeth and shout Woo-Hoo! at curtain calls, either. The New Yorker in me wishes Seattle audiences were a touch more sophisticated - but then there's a charming, familial quality that would be missing if they were. There's no such thing as the Seattle freeze at the ballet!

Romeo et Juliette is performed at McCaw Hall through Valentine's Day, so grab your valentine and go for a beautiful, exuberant, romantic evening of gorgeous music and unforgettable dancing at PNB.

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