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Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of

'Roméo et Juliette'

by M. Geoffery D'Onofrio

September 24 -October 4, 2009 -- Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle

Having heeded the lessons of solely negative artistic criticism that posterity has retained for us, I am not therefore of the general inclination to deride (at least publically) any work of Art, for we need only look to the Edinburgh Review’s disparagement of Wordsworth’s poems (1807), as well as the lambaste levied against Keats in the pages of the Quarterly Review (1817) to see that said literary critics are utterly forgotten whilst the two poets toward whom they directed their fierce disapprobation are admired, read, and studied in almost every school and University in the Western World. However, after having endured Pacific Northwest Ballet’s recent staging of Roméo et Juliette at the Marion Oliver McCaw Hall and Opera House, I, despite my better daemon admonishing me against so doing, cannot but help give voice to what I feel to be an egregious mis-use of the artistic licence.

I am in complete agreement with Anthony Tommasini’s averment that ‘Directors [and choreographers] should claim the freedom to re-interpret a work’, for such has time and again been highly successful and well-done over the centuries (Goethe’s Faust comes immediately to mind, not to mention Sergei Prokofiev’s score to the ballet in question, having originally been composed by Mendelssohn nearly a century before). And yet, when Jean-Christophe Maillot’s choreography for this ballet is considered and reflected upon in whole, whether or not one has for one’s reference the almost sublime choreography of Kenneth MacMillan for the same ballet, one’s better artistic sensibilities cannot, I think, fail to notice the patent incongruity of Maillot’s choreography with Prokofiev’s graceful and emotive score.

For, unless we hearken back to the Medieval disease known as St. Vitus’s Dance or chorea (which Greek word, by the way, means ‘dance’), characterised as it is by convulsive twitchings and violent muscular paroxysms, it is difficult to accord any gratitude to Maillot’s direction in this ballet beyond the fact that he elicits from his dancers an arduous regimen and perhaps further individual growth in the Art to which they have espoused their lives.

This, of course, is worthy, but when regarded under the purview of the ballet of Roméo et Juliette as a work of Art itself, keeping in mind the deep and cordiloquent pathos of the story, his choreography seems terribly unbefitting to such pathos. For, when we remember that a ballet’s choreography pays as much attention, if not more so, to the music as it does to the story, it ought therefore work in unison with, not against, the music. To be sure, music is to ballet (dancing) what words are to speech: symbols that represent and convey emotion, thought, and condition; and thus, especially in a grand ballet in which the various characters (dancers) must be developed in order to tell the story, said dancers must be a visible embodiment of those feelings, thoughts, and conditions; for we need hardly recur to Jean Georges Noverre (that venerable maître de ballet at Lyons, Vienna, and Milan) who in 1760 wrote ‘…dance music corresponds, or should do, to the written [work] and thus fixes and determines the dancer’s movements and actions…consequently dancing with action is the instrument, or organ, by which the thoughts expressed in the music are rendered appropriately and intelligibly.’

And here, in Prokofiev, we have one of the most beautiful, sensitive, and respectful compositions ever scored for a ballet: indeed, from the very first measures thereof we are straightaway taken directly into the profound ardour and tragedy of the story, and all throughout Prokofiev never releases his hold on, nor diminishes his caress upon the heart of the listener. And yet, unfortunately for us, this is something that Maillot apparently has forgotten; for, whether he was giving a nod to the Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo in his (Elo’s) decided ambivalence to ballet decorum, or simply appeasing his own desire to be ‘modern’ and ‘innovative’ for the sole sake of modernity and/or innovation, I cannot say. Nevertheless, his effort here is most transparent; for the way in which he culled from the brief history of modern dance is quite blatant and painfully obvious, and how this passes for ‘originality’ or ‘ingenuity’ utterly baffles me: so-called ‘experimentation’ is not, mind you, tantamount to creativity.

Now, as it must here be said, though I do not personally care much for modern dance, it is indeed its own valid art form; however, when we have music here that is so mellifluous, so pathetic and replete with lyricism and grace, it seems, dare I say, almost a transgression against the music (and the story) to accompany it with such a profusion of rigid, jerky, and spasmodic dancing as we have in Maillot’s choreography. It is akin to adding an excessive amount of salt in a recipe for chocolate torte. Indeed, though the PNB dancers themselves were superb in enacting that which they were asked to perform, their prescribed movements, gestures, and attitudes failed to convey (save perhaps when Tybalt kills Mercutio, as well as during the final Scene) the real essence and the endurance of the active tenderness and affliction of the tragedy itself.

This is especially the case in both the Balcony Scene and Juliette’s Bedchamber Scene: for here Prokofiev returns to the achingly beautiful strains with which he begins his score, the perfect coalescence of inner joy and knowledge that is engendered within the souls of the two beloveds, together with the ominous though subtle premonitions of the grave and mournful events that are soon to follow---rarely has the entire string section of an orchestra been used to convey such a pure and actual representation of such emotions. But most noticeably in the Bedchamber Scene, Maillot wastes roughly two-thirds of this deeply sensuous and ardent music by either having Roméo and Juliette do nothing but stand at a too lengthy distance from each other, staring as if to portray disconcertion or uncertainty of their Love, or (and perhaps even less pardonable) groping and carelessly fondling each other on her triangular-shaped bed.

To be sure, it may easily be said that I, in this regard, am a ‘traditionalist’, unable to see anything worthy beyond Alessandra Ferri’s and Angel Corella’s masterful dancing of MacMillan’s choreography of the same scenes; and yet, were I never to have seen Ferri and Corella dance these scenes (nor for that matter Nureyev and Fonteyn), still would I recognise the utter lack of lyricism, pathos, and congruity that characterises Maillot’s treatment here---indeed, believing something to be poorly done is not predicated on having seen it done well in the past.

Furthermore, though it was at least of interest to find Maillot inserting on occasion in the first few scenes movements and gestures that were reminiscent of Egyptian, Greek, and Tibetan dance, even at times recalling (at least what we can surmise from photographs) certain attitudes of Nijinsky, much of what Maillot gives the viewer is, for some reason, needlessly irreverent, almost as if he were posturing on purpose, dare I say spitting in the face of classical ballet. For, not only were the adolescently phallic innuendos more than conspicuous, yet these, as well as the numerous other overt, lurid, and raunchy sexual gesticulations, have no place in this particular tragedy---if someone, anyone, can tell me what real purpose they honestly serve to the story of Roméo et Juliette---and ‘boyish playfulness’ is not a sufficient answer---I should be very much obliged. Remember, the two Veronese families in this tale, the Capulets and Montagues, absolutely detest one another, there is no playfulness here; and detestation is not, nor has it ever been, demonstrated by a cadre of young men gambolling mirthfully about, fondling and stroking the breasts, loins, and posteriors of the young women who belong to the opposing family; but this is precisely what Maillot has them do---we must not mistake frank and calculated sensationalism in and of itself for Art.

To conclude, though I can tolerate the anaesthetic, almost clinically austere scenic design of Ernest Pignon-Ernest, how lovely it would have been were this production to have had more pure ballet than the woeful few minutes of such it gave to the viewer. For, what a grand opportunity did Maillot have, bestowed such an excellent story and a Beautiful score; but yet (though it seems virtually impossible to do so given this), he, in my meek opinion, miscarried what could have otherwise been a tremendous contemporary re-interpretation of an ageless story through the noble Arts of ballet and music. And yet, this is but the appraisal and commentary of one person who, whilst Maillot will no doubt be remembered, said commentator probably will not. And, even if my opinions here bring down upon me the wrath of a multitude of modern-minded performance-goers who are allured by sheer and turgid novelty at the cost of the more profound emotivity for which the ballet-story of Roméo et Juliette calls, well, be that as it may…

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