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American Repertory Ballet

'Romeo and Juliet'

by Jerry Hochman

April 12, 2013 -- Union County Performing Arts Center, Rahway, NJ

You take the timeless Shakespeare tragedy, add the exquisite score by Serge Prokofiev, throw in some intelligent choreography and stagecraft, and add engaging and competent dancers, and a successful ballet production of Romeo and Juliet is almost a guarantee regardless of its size and budget. The new full length version of Romeo and Juliet by American Repertory Ballet’s Artistic Director Douglas Martin, which had its first full-choreographic ‘preview’ (full-length choreography, with costumes but not sets) on Friday at the Union Count Performing Arts Center (“UCPAC”), is destined to be one of those successful productions, and in many respects it’s already a pleasant surprise.

The version that Mr. Martin has choreographed plays it straight – this is not a revisionist Romeo and Juliet. As such, it invites comparisons to other well-known productions, including those performed by major companies. I particularly noticed some similarities between Mr. Martin’s version and that of Sir Kenneth MacMillan, which is currently in the repertory of American Ballet Theatre. But that’s to be expected, since the source material is the same. That being said, however, there are sufficient significant differences in detail, aside from this production’s smaller scale (this is not so much a ‘chamber’ version of Romeo and Juliet, as it is a compact one), that make Mr. Martin’s version different from others, and the fact that I’m mentioning it in the same breath as others is a compliment: this is an ambitious production. At times it may look like ‘MacMillan-lite’, but it has a character of its own.

Based on the two ballets of his that I’ve seen (this piece, and his Rite of Spring), Mr. Martin is particularly adept at choreographing stage-spanning action, which is evident in his Romeo and Juliet from the first scene. After the piece moves from the brief and somewhat awkward opening images of Romeo flirting with a girl (presumably Rosaline, but she’s not identified), the ballet segues quickly into the initial ‘village’ scene, and immediately comes to life. The ‘smaller’ nature of this production, while requiring choreographic adjustments, doesn’t diminish the level of activity the eye sees. As it should be, everyone on stage is in some degree of motion, and it all looks balanced. This facility with handling relatively large numbers of dancers on stage carries into the Capulet ball, which is as impressive – though on a much smaller scale – as the MacMillan version (particularly with the lighting and costumes, designed respectively by Lauren Parrish, and Michelle Ferranti).

Even though it may not yet be in final form, the swordplay in the initial village scene (Act I, Scene 1) is already among the best this viewer has seen. Mr. Martin has choreographed his swordfights with considerable variety of movement so that the action looks natural rather than programmed, and the ARB dancers do a superb job with it. The fact that Mr. Martin ends the swordfight in what to me is a somewhat novel way (one of the village girls is killed) adds an unexpected, and unexpectedly disturbing, visual punctuation point.

I also liked what Mr. Martin did with the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ performance within the performance that he inserted in Act II, Scene 1. I’ve seen similar interpretations before, and the scene makes more sense to me when the action is ‘interrupted’ by a street performance of some sort, as it is here, than by a ‘street wedding’, as in the MacMillan version. Moreover, using this artifice allows for more choreographic variety, and Mr. Martin has executed it well: the performance within the performance (and the ‘play within the play within the play’ that the Commedia dell’Arte dancers perform as part of their ‘act’) doesn’t interrupt the flow of the main action as much as it seems to accelerate and add texture to it.

Further, Mr. Martin’s choreography for the ‘lead’ members of the cast satisfies the essential prerequisites: it is challenging for the dancers, but not beyond their capabilities; it is visually interesting to watch; and most importantly, it successfully moves the audience. For example, the choreography he has created for Mercutio, Benvolio, and the three ‘harlots’ appears to be both exuberant and spontaneous, and the duets between Juliet and Romeo – in particular, the critical balcony scene – are choreographed, and were executed, with the combination of rapture and conviction, that quality of being genuine, that is necessary to make the audience feel what the dancers feel, and to respond with the cathartic release that prompts appreciative, as opposed to obligatory, applause.

On the other hand, Mr. Martin seemed unable to resolve satisfactorily the challenges he had with performers who had relatively static roles or who were not the focus of attention. For example, the movement for the Duke of Verona (end of Act I, scene 1), even though requiring only arm gestures, was particularly weak, and the movement quality for Friar Lawrence, Paris, and to a lesser extent the Nurse wasn’t much better. Perhaps Mr. Martin can find a way to inject more life into these roles.
More importantly, however, was the apparent difficulty Mr. Martin had with finding something for his relatively large cast [in addition to the ARB company dancers, the stage was populated with company trainees] to do when the action was focused on other dancers. So, for example, we often had Juliet’s friends (or a subset of them) just hanging around posing, not seeming to know what to do with their arms, or having their arms held out from their bodies like misaligned propeller blades in poses that looked less like stylistic choreographed statements than positions imposed because something had to be done with those arms. But in all fairness, there were no places for these and other cast members to be made relatively inconspicuous – because the UCPAC stage is so compact, these dancers couldn’t circle around the back of the stage to hobnob with other dancers out of the way of the ‘leads’. This concern – that at times the production looked not so much busy as cramped, and that characters not in focus had no place to hide (requiring that something be done to validate their stage presence), may be cured when the company officially premieres the piece in October, 2013 at the larger State Theater in New Brunswick (NJ).

But if the overall action moves well and looks convincing, and the main characters are competent dancers and engaging performers, the production will work. ARB’s production has the action; and, with the understanding that it is not, and does not (yet) pretend to be, a ‘major national company’, it also has the dancers.

Karen Leslie Moscato, who danced Juliet, is a product of the Princeton Ballet School (ARB’s affiliated school), and has been with the company for three years – relatively long compared to many other company members. Her experience shows: her portrayal was both appropriately youthful and technically accomplished, and she has a particular affinity for bourrees, which she executes beautifully. Indeed, although the steps were a noticeably abundant ingredient in Juliet’s dances, they was executed so well by Ms. Moscato that they never felt repetitious or superfluous. [I suspect that Mr. Martin choreographed his Juliet on Ms. Moscato and inserted as many bourrees as he did in order to choreograph to her strength. But regardless of the motivation, it worked both choreographically and as performed.]

My only concern about Ms. Moscato’s performance is that she needs to find a way to add shades of ‘feeling.’ Up until the point where she was being ordered by her parents to marry Paris, she had the same smile on her face throughout. By that I mean that her emotional level looked the same regardless of the situation: for instance, she seemed just as happy to be dancing with Paris (in Act I) as she was with Romeo – even after she had met Romeo; and during the bedroom scene in Act II, Scene 1, there was no reflection of concern that Romeo, who had just killed Tybalt, had been banished and would have to leave her. To be as convincing as she could be, she’ll need to find a way to express emotional changes clearly, and with degrees of shading, so that the audience can see more than just rapture on the one hand and despair on the other.

In other respects, however, Ms. Moscato was exemplary where it counts. As noted, Mr. Martin has choreographed an appropriately rapturous balcony scene, and Ms. Moscato (and her Romeo) gave a lucid, crisply executed, and believable presentation, which the audience clearly appreciated. And the scenes leading up to, and including, the final scene were particularly well-performed. Indeed, this viewer has seen many ‘screams’ (which is not just a ‘scream’; it’s an emotional explosion), and Ms. Moscato’s was superbly done. After seeing more Romeo and Juliet’s than I can remember, for Ms. Moscato to have prompted a reflexive tear says as much about the quality of her performance as it does for this viewer’s being a particularly soft touch.

Ms. Moscato’s Romeo was Mattia Pallozzi, a company trainee who did not become affiliated with the company or its school until 2011. This may explain some of his difficulty with the cleanliness of his steps, and particular his finishes to turns, but under the circumstances his performance was remarkable given his level of experience. Mr. Pallozzi is a tall, somewhat sinewy dancer, with a facility for clearly transmitting passion combined with sincerity. His portrayal was as the ‘Romeo next door’ (as opposed to being particularly experienced or inexperienced), and any absence of technical polish was overcome by this sweetness of his character. More importantly, Mr. Martin has choreographed the various duets between Juliet and Romeo to require strength, flexibility, and agility. Although you could see the rough edges and the effort, Mr. Pallozzi pulled off the two hardest parts of his portrayal – making his Romeo look believable and likeable, and partnering his Juliet with comfortable enthusiasm, so that, as executed, Mr. Martin’s choreography looked natural and unforced.

I was also impressed with the performances of the other cast members in significant roles. Alexander Dutko’s Mercutio had the right balance of bravado and sensitivity, and Stephen Campanella did a fine job as well as Benvolio. Both of them became particularly energized when playing off the three ‘harlots’: Samantha Gullace, Euphrosyne Avery, and Shaye Firer. [In Mr. Martin’s version the three harlots are specifically identified as companions of one of the lead men, as opposed to the de facto associations in the MacMillan version. I like that Mr. Martin has taken the description of these characters one step further - and perhaps in the future he might consider identifying them not as harlots, with all the unnecessary baggage that that word carries, but as friends (particularly since they’re not characters in the play)].

Ms. Gullace, Ms. Avery, and Ms. Firer did an excellent job with Mr. Martin’s choreography, and were appropriately engaged in their relationships with their ‘friends’. [They also did double-duty as Juliet’s ‘girlfriends’, together with Alice Cao and Clair van Bever.] But as commendable as each of them were, Ms. Firer stood out. I can’t yet comment on her technical facility (although I noticed no apparent deficiency). To this viewer, however, Ms. Firer, who has only been with the company for one year, contributes more to a performance than just competent execution of steps and character portrayal – she’s a vivacious performer [at the risk of being accused of taking advantage of an easy punning opportunity, she’s a firecracker] who transmits enthusiasm for whatever she’s doing on stage without falling into the trap of overdoing it and making it look artificial. And this applies not only to her portrayal of a harlot, where some degree of exaggeration and over-the-top acting would not have been inappropriate, but also in her more subdued role as one of Juliet’s friends.

Aside from the referenced lead dancers, those who were given most dancing to do were the Commedia dell’Arte players, who were in virtual constant motion during their performance within the performance: Ms. van Bever as Columbina; Cameron Auble-Branigan as Arlecchino; Tullio Cata (a company trainee) as Pantalone; and Kelsey McFalls (a company apprentice) and Edward Urwin as the Innamorati. They were wonderfully effervescent.

When she was able to do more than be a somewhat aloof mother, Talin Kenar gave a powerful performance as Lady Capulet, and her over-the-top hysteria at Tybalt’s death was not so crazed as to be either disturbing or unbelievable. [In this version, Mr. Martin has made Lady Capulet’s response to Tybalt’s death a clearer reflection of some relationship, other than familial, between Lady Capulet and Tybalt. Here, as Lord Capulet approaches his grieving wife, she rises from Tybalt’s body and forcibly pushes Lord Capulet away, as if to say ‘you don’t belong here; you don’t know anything about how I feel; this is my private agony’. Very nicely done.] As her husband, Joshua Kurtzberg (who was scheduled to perform Romeo the following afternoon) did a good job showing frustration, power, and pain within the framework of the minimal amount of movement choreographed to him.

Jacobo Janelli, another company trainee, was an appropriately aggressive Tybalt, and managed to avoid appearing as either a drunken bully or a homicidal maniac, and Mr. Urwin was the appropriately bland Paris, although some display of disappointment or resentment at being rejected by Juliet would have made Paris a more complete character. The other characters were all assigned to company trainees: they included the Nurse, Andrea D’Anunzio; and the Ball Guests (Alessia Astro, Kelsey Collard, Elisabeth Hekman, and Allison Piccone), all of whom graced the stage admirably. [It seems that the company may have a pipeline to Italy – many of its trainees were born and received their dance training there.]

Also noteworthy is Mr. Martin’s addition of the characters Balthazar (Romeo’s ‘servant’ in the original - played by Mr. Cato), Sampson (a primary Capulet cohort - by Mr. Auble Branigan), and Gregory (a secondary Capulet cohort – played by Marco Sammartino, another company trainee). They don’t have much to do, but either Sampson or Balthazar or both are active in instigating the initial swordfight, and provided this scene with some depth of character beyond being bodies necessary to fill the stage. [I had forgotten that these characters existed in the play. Perhaps some ingenious playwright will someday write a play based on these characters, as Tom Stoppard did with similar seemingly insignificant characters in "Hamlet": Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.]

Performed on the UCPAC stage has its plusses and minuses. As noted, the production often looks cramped, and adjustments may have been made to conform to the smaller space. On the other hand, and even though I would not categorize it as a ‘chamber’ version, it was certainly an intimate performance. Seeing the dancers up close and personal adds to a performance’s impact (and may also enhance deficiencies). It will be interesting to see the effect that its transfer to a larger stage and a larger auditorium will have. But based on the compact production I saw, Mr. Martin’s version is already emotionally and artistically fulfilling, and I look forward to seeing it with completed sets and at a more appropriately-sized space in the fall. ARB’s Romeo and Juliet may prove to be not only a viable alternative for those audience members unwilling or unable to see a performance of the ballet by a major company in New York, but an independently compelling performance destination of its own.

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