Drop your preconceptions of a story length ballet: a classical spectacular with splendid costumes? A stultified, stylized waste of time?
Go to see the current Pacific Northwest Ballet production of “Romeo et Juliette” with choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot. It will confound you, absorb you, shake you, upset those preconceptions and leave you feeling wrung but satisfied.
PNB brought this production to Seattle at the beginning for 2008, and such was the response that artistic director Peter Boal has brought it back much sooner than is usual for a repeat. It stretched both dancers and audience then, and at the end principal dancer Noelani Pantastico, the Juliette for all nine performances, was invited to join Maillot’s company, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, where she is only the second dancer to perform Juliette in what is their signature ballet.
Maillot has pared down Shakespeare’s story to essentially the turbulence and emotional intensities of adolescence. The only characters apart from the young of the rival Montague and Capulet clans are Lady Capulet, a dark, powerful but oddly detached woman, Juliette’s nurse, Juliette’s suitor Paris, and Friar Lawrence, in this production a younger man with two acolytes, an enigmatic, lonely character able to foretell the future but unable to deflect the inexorable course of fate. In Thursday night’s opening performance these were danced by Ariana Lallone, Chalnessa Eames as a fine comic dancer, Stanko Milov and Olivier Wevers respectively.
Maillot’s ballet is as much theater as dance. While it is unmistakably a ballet with ballet steps, there are also many steps and gestures which we all use in everyday life, from walkng with toes straight to a friendly slap on the back to a hearty shove and many more. The dancers need to understand and inhabit their characters at the core in order to portray them convincingly. It’s mime in dance, each gesture having meaning, and it needs split second timing and fast, accurate coordination. It’s beautiful to watch, full of life and death, and it takes dancers with top quality technique to manage the physical demands and use them to further the story. This production is a shining example of Pacific Northwest Ballet at its best.
Thursday night’s cast was uniformly strong, even outstanding. As danced by Batkhurel Bold, Juliette’s cousin Tybalt is an angry, aggressive man spoiling for a fight, while Jonathan Porretta as Romeo’s friend Mercutio is provocative and heedless and goes too far in baiting the tiger, Tybalt. Lucien Postlewaite is Romeo, the carefree teen stunned by love, his boundless happiness in it, his devastation by Mercutio’s death and his role as avenger, his uncertainty approaching Juliette after, and his agony at her seeming death. Postlewaite is an embodiment of Romeo, so deeply does he inhabit the role. These three all danced the roles last year and are even more entrenched in them this year.
Carla Korbes, as Juliette, hurt her back a couple of weeks before the production opening last year so that Thursday was her debut in the role. An artless, funloving young teen at the start, she knows her own mind and reaches to grasp love on her own terms, as stunned as Romeo when it happens. Korbes shone in the role, fully inside it, except for a short period near then end in a pas de deus with Friar Lawrence. Juliette is upset, hurt and uncertain here, but briefly Korbes is outside the role and it doesn’t quite convince. Yet at the end, in the death scene, she and Postlewaite have the audience holding its collective breath.
The other young Capulets and Montagues have strength of their own. The middle act where the two groups are alternating flirting in the street and horseplay with an undertone of menace which eventually boils over, is as strong as anything else in the ballet.
Sets, costumes and lighting all further the action. Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s sets are minimal: two tall white rectangles divided by a ramp which rises, and two smaller curved rectangles which move. Jerome Kaplan’s costumes are subtle, in shades of grey and black for Capulets and white or beige for Montagues, while Juliette’s floating dress for the ball is gauzy gold. The imaginative lighting, by Dominique Drillot, sets the tone throughout, particularly in the last act where there is the suggestion of a church window on one panel, and over the deathbed, the slanting shadow of part of a cross.
Last but not at all least is Prokofiev’s expressive score, played with sensitivity and sweep by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Stewart Kershaw.
Don’t miss this extraordinary production.
It runs through October 4 at McCaw Hall. Ticket prices are $25-160 at 206-441-2424 or at http://www.pnb.org .
P. S You might also not want to miss the modern take on this story in November, when Jerome Robbins and Leonartd Bernstein’s” West Side Story Suite” is included in the next PNB repertory production.