Pacific Northwest Ballet revives starkly dramatic 'Roméo et Juliette'
Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Roméo et Juliette" is a stark rendering of Shakespeare's tale. Artistic director Peter Boal talks about the special dramatic skills it demands from the company.
Seattle Times arts writer
"Roméo et Juliette"Pacific Northwest Ballet, Sept. 24-Oct. 4, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, Seattle; $25-$160 (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org).
Pacific Northwest Ballet begins its 37th season on Thursday with a ballet that's familiar — and yet not so familiar.
Jean-Christophe Maillot's "Roméo et Juliette," created in 1996 for his Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, made its PNB premiere just 18 months ago. It's a stark, dramatic rendering of the Shakespeare tale that's very different from previous versions of the ballet, and it caught PNB's audiences by surprise. A few hated it (there were walkouts); many loved it.
Artistic director Peter Boal, beginning his fifth season with the company, said that normally he wouldn't bring a ballet back after only 18 months. "But the response to 'Roméo et Juliette' was so tremendous," he said. "People were saying, on the final Sunday, 'Can't you please do it next week?' "
The tale of star-crossed lovers isn't new for PNB, which long featured a version in its repertory choreographed by former co-artistic director Kent Stowell. That rendition was set to a Tchaikovsky score; Maillot's to Prokofiev. But it isn't just the music that distinguishes the two ballets.
As Boal describes it, Stowell's version was more "the 'Romeo and Juliet' that you expect 'Romeo and Juliet' to be. There's certain things you will take for granted: elaborate sets, sword fights, Friar Lawrence is going to be an old man, all those things — that's what 'Romeo and Juliet' is.
"And I think Maillot took a lot of those away, even depriving the audience of the ability to applaud. He carefully does that: Every time a scene is done and you're like this (Boal held his hands as if ready to clap), he starts the music. And then you realize that you're not going to applaud until the act is over, and you realize your focus is more intense because you haven't taken a break to applaud. When people applaud, they start talking to each other, they look at their programs, but this kept you hooked. I asked [Maillot] about it, and he said, 'Oh no, it's deliberate.' "
Currently, five company dancers are rehearsing the role of Juliette and four for Roméo, but most of them likely will not perform; both roles are so massive in choreography and acting, Boal said, it's a challenge to have just one or two casts fully prepared. In casting, he looked for dancers who had the potential to master the dramatics of the roles, as well as a certain quality of movement.
In Maillot's deeply emotional ballet, both Roméo and Juliette have a teenagy, nonballetic awkwardness; they walk on their heels, they look not always entirely at ease in their bodies — until love takes them over. "Juliette doesn't even point her toes when she's dead!" laughed Boal. "I've never seen a Juliette who didn't point her toes."
The dramatic aspects of the roles go hand-in-hand with the movement: To learn the ballet, said Boal, you can't separate one from the other.
He's currently coaching a PNB ballerina in the role of Juliette, and told her on the first day, "You can't even just do the steps in the studio. You have to do [the emotion] right away. You have to think of your face as a leg, you have to get accustomed to what you're going to do with it, even in the studio."
Maillot himself and several stagers from his Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo worked with the company last year, among whom Boal singled out Bernice Coppieters, the production's original Juliette. "She just kept bringing it back to — it has to be real," he said. "She said something like, perfect is so boring, and imperfect is so fascinating. This is a Juliette with flaws and awkwardness and shoulders up, and she laughs too loud and she stumbles, and that is what's so beautiful, so quintessentially beautiful. And I think that's kind of the key to the production."
"Roméo et Juliette" kicks off a season that's notable for its wealth of full-length ballets: In addition to this production, it will feature Ronald Hynd's "The Sleeping Beauty" (last seen at PNB in 2006), the company premiere of George Balanchine's "Coppelia" and the traditional holiday run of Stowell's "Nutcracker." Interspersed between these will be three mixed-repertory evenings showcasing the likes of Balanchine, Ulysses Dove, Jiri Kylian and other contemporary choreographers.
Boal noted that, in a difficult economic time, full-length story ballets add security to the season — audience members are more likely to buy tickets to something whose title they recognize and know they'll like.
"Roméo et Juliette," however, blends the traditional and the new. "It's kind of a unique physicality," said Boal of Maillot's work. "It's going beyond classical ballet, it's understanding that physical movement is part of the pleasure of this choreography."
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