Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet: the feuding families, the youthful star-crossed lovers, the passion, bloodshed, and heartbreak. There have been countless renditions of William Shakespeare’s tragic romance in theater, film, music, opera, and ballet, all with their own unique spin. While many productions, particularly those in the ballet world, tend toward opulence, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette gravitates to minimal extremes. The sets, designed by Ernest Pignon-Ernest are spare white panels that glide elegantly across the stage, denoting a change of scene and creating the contours of the next setting. Costumes (by Jérȏme Kaplan) evoke the Elizabethan time-period without being stuffy. The props are few and well utilized: a mobius strip of plastic, simplistic puppets, a red scarf. The true beauty of all this minimalism, however, is that it allows Maillot’s choreography and the dancers performing it to speak for themselves—and this is a magnificent sight.
What is most intriguing about Maillot’s choreography is that it makes you almost forget you’re watching dance. He mixes ballet vocabulary, pedestrian movement, and mimetic gestures so fluidly that you can practically hear the corresponding dialogue come out of the dancers’ mouth. This alchemic blend of movement fleshes out the characters until they’re less character and more real people, their actions unfolding in real time before your eyes. The detailed choreography also helps abstract plot points, accentuating some and downplaying others. Like in an exquisite slow motion fight scene, where both the combat and the deaths are portrayed through dance, without any actual swordplay. Mercutio is felled by a dramatic blow to the face, Tybalt is choked, and red scarves are used to denote blood. The abstraction makes us use our imagination, but also allows us to feel the essence of the action and its corresponding emotional response, without the trappings of being overly literal.
While Maillot’s choreography utilizes the whole body, he pays particular attention to the hands and mouth, our most expressive parts. The Nurse beckons emphatically with her finger; the Capulets and Montagues antagonize each other with flicking wrists; and Roméo and Juliette press their palms together and swim their hands upwards, a symbol of love repeated throughout the ballet. And while there is a good deal of kissing, at several moments the dancers open their mouths wide in a silent scream of agony and despair. The thrilling musicality of every gesture and its perfect relationship to Prokofiev’s score also heightens the impact.
The dancing itself, too, is marvelous. Opening night featured Noelani Pantastico (read more on her return to PNB in this interview) as Juliette and James Moore as her Roméo. The two were electric. Their chemistry is apparent from the first moment they stand face to face and truly see each other—akin to the West Side Story scene (another Romeo and Juliet interpretation) where Maria and Tony first meet and the rest of the world melts away in technicolor dreaminess. In their duets, Pantastico and Moore bring young love to life in all its fluttery, tender, and exhilarating glory. They tease and tempt, revelling in each touch.
Moore brings a perfect boyishness to his Roméo; brash and open-hearted, like a true teenager, he seems to live one full-throttle emotion at a time. Pantastico’s Juliette is more nuanced (after dancing with Maillot’s company, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, for the past seven years she’s had a few more chances at the role). Though she’s a typical adolescent girl in many ways, chafing against her parents expectations—in this case, an arranged marriage—she’s also bold enough to rebel. Her portrayal of love is euphoric, and she has the capacity to make the audience feel the same. Pantastico also possesses phenomenal energetic control. She goes from willowy swoon to taut expectancy in a flash, and this clarity lends a mercurial je ne sais quoi to her movements.
Several other roles deserve mention. Jonathan Porretta brought mischief and a zesty aggression to his Mercutio. A PNB standout on his own, it was a real treat to see him gadding about the stage with Moore and Benjamin Griffiths as Benvolio. In several trio moments, their collectively marvelous jumps and sparkly technique perfectly accentuate the boyish slapstick comedy. The role of Friar Laurence is also particularly arresting. He acts like an omniscient narrator (his consistent anguish indicates his knowledge of what lies ahead), and a simultaneous catalyst for the tragedy. Maillot’s choreography reflects the feeling of being caught between two uncontrollable forces: the Friar is pulled this way and that with his arms outstretched horizontally, and he slumps against the walls in despair as if carrying a heavy burden. Opening night featured Miles Pertl, new to PNB this year, as the Friar. He lent an admirable gravity to the role and his tall, lithe frame seemed to stretch to its breaking point. Like the Friar, the audience, too, is incapable of stopping the tragedy, even though we know how the story ends. The power of Maillot’s production, and this cast in particular, is the emotional impact. As an audience member you feel the roller coaster from ecstasy to sorrow. Even though it’s tragic, it’s too achingly beautiful to look away.
Roméo et Juliette continues this weekend, February 11-14, at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Tickets and more information can be found here.