Since the invention of the kiss, there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure…this one left them all behind.
This line from The Princess Bride kept running through my head during Roméo et Juliette at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Since I first saw ballet, there have been four instances that left the others behind.
- The Nutcracker, 1993. I had no idea what to expect, and I was completely transported. You never forget your first time.
- Mark Morris Dance Group at the Paramount. For at least a year afterword, everything I saw on the ballet stage seemed stiff and artificial.
- Mopey, 2005. The first season Peter Boal directed Pacific Northwest Ballet, Mopey redefined my idea of what ballet could be. To this day I can almost watch this dance like a video in my memory.
- Opening night at Roméo et Juliette. I am not a huge fan of story ballets, but this interpretation of Shakespeare’s bawdy tragedy took my breath away.
Local ballet fans will notice the last two have something in common – James Moore. In ballet, for better or worse, the male dancer’s role is generally to make the female look good. There aren’t very many ballets that showcase the male dancers. So when a male dancer shows up twice on your list, he’s something special.
Confession: I never felt Romeo and Juliet before. I’ve read it, seen the plays, watched the movies, engaged in discussions that ranged from the academic to the penis jokes. I enjoyed all of it. Shakespeare was talking about adolescence, about those huge, tumultuous rollercoaster feelings when the fate of the world hinges on a word or a look. But it was all academic.
Until Act I at PNB, when the opening scene reminded me of hanging of hanging out with my friends, killing time and hating those other guys. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie was similarly successful in translating the adolescent emotion for the modern viewer, although it was so highly stylized that I couldn’t make a genuine connection with the characters. Christophe Maillot’s choreography debuted in the same year, so I don’t know who influenced whom, or if teenage passion was just in the ’96 zeitgeist, but there are marked similarities in the two productions.
In fact, Luhrmann and Maillot (as I experienced him through PNB) have a lot in common. Both used music I don’t love (80s Top 40 pop in Moulin Rouge and Prokofiev in Roméo et Juliette, respectively) to tell stories I adore. I would never listen to Prokofiev’s disjointed, abrasive, often dissonant, one might almost say hormonal score by itself, but Maillot created a ballet that so perfectly suited the music, I can’t imagine any other soundtrack (just as Elton John’s “How Wonderful Life Is” is always sung by Ewan McGregor in my mind). Both represent the relationship between Lady Capulet and Tybalt as… particularly close, something I don’t remember from before. And both are heavily referential. The ballet includes a shout-out to West Side Story, and the puppet show in Act II that foreshadows the remainder of plot is visually almost identical to that in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – which of course is drawn from the bard himself.
The characters in Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette are three dimensional. Romeo and his friends are crude and vulgar in the street scenes, but his first tentative stolen kiss with Juliet at the party is so sweet and indirect we are reminded that he is not so far removed from an age when kisses were for mommy; he plays at being a man but he’s still a boy.
The pas de deux in the garden has none of that gentleness. Chaotic and powerful, the pair is tossed on waves of emotion they don’t even try to control. Although nothing in my adolescence resembled the grace and beauty of their dance, it so perfectly recreates the tumultuous passions of first love that the scene left me breathless. Likewise, the death of Mercutio feels like yet another teen street fight – until it gets out of hand. Then everything moves in slow motion as it does when you’re in shock – in my memory, I see the scene with the same tunnel vision as my memories of car accidents. Although the program describes Romeo’s killing of Tybalt as an execution of duty, the performance contains nothing of ritual. Romeo chases Tybalt in a blind rage and murders him with his bare hands. It is ugly and visceral; more intense than anything I’ve seen in decades of avid action movie viewing. Romeo too, is horrified. When he comes to his senses he recoils from Tybalt’s corpse, shocked by what he has done. In Act III, when he runs to Juliet’s crypt, it is not the stylized stage-running of ballet, you can feel that he’s driven to see the truth for himself. When he does, his grief is palpable. I was once again reminded of Moulin Rouge, because the last time I saw stage-grief that credible was Ewan McGregor’s ragged sob over the body of Satine.
Kaori Nakamura as Juliet was equally real. With her nurse and with Romeo, her motions were bold and decisive. The force of her feelings was apparent. When she first sees Romeo after he kills Tybalt, her anger reaches him before her body does. She strikes at him with the force of intent – there is nothing ineffectual in her blows. Before Romeo flees to Mantua, she drags him across the stage to her bed. She is determined and strong, but in the presence of authority – her mother, Paris, Tybalt, Friar Lawrence – she is dwarfed, a child among adults. Meant to be seen and not heard, her movements mirror her mother’s. The friar picks her up, and she looks like a doll in his arms.
And the friar. In contrast to the unfiltered humanity of the other characters, Friar Lawrence is a moving metaphor, trying to hold back walls that he set in motion, playing the puppetmaster behind the curtain. Karel Cruz, impossibly tall and thin, manipulates the action like a Jack Skellington. He looks and feels sinister and yet is clearly grieved by the outcome of his actions. Although he is a causal agent, he seems trapped by destiny as much as the young lovers themselves are – his tragedy is understanding his role in the greater scheme, but not being able to change it.
I’ve held season tickets to Pacific Northwest Ballet for more than half of the twenty years I’ve lived in Seattle, but I haven’t attended much lately. When PNB first performed Roméo et Juliette, I was a stay-at-home mom with no money for tickets or babysitters, so I didn’t see it. But at the end of this performance, I bought tickets to the rest of the season in the lobby before I left McCaw Hall. With ballets like Mopey and Roméo et Juliette in the repertory, I can’t afford to miss any more.