Some things never change in old Verona, no matter which "Romeo and Juliet" ballet you're seeing. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio inevitably dance in the marketplace with a trio of anonymous doxies (listed as "whores" at American Ballet Theatre, "Gypsies" at the Joffrey, "peasant women" at Pacific Northwest Ballet). Juliet unfailingly wears toe shoes to bed on her wedding night. Paris is almost invariably a blond ninny.
None of this, of course, has much to do with Shakespeare--but it may have a lot to do with building a regional dance company's reputation at a time when the road to health is paved with good recensions: slightly novel and very expensive retellings that, at bottom, are essentially the same.
Introduced in the Seattle Center Opera House earlier this month, Pacific Northwest Ballet's new full-evening, $500,000 "Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet" is the latest attempt by an American company to buy institutional respectability through an elephantine project with a familiar, salable title.
Like the upcoming Joffrey Ballet "Nutcracker," San Francisco Ballet "Swan Lake" and New York City Ballet "Sleeping Beauty," this problematic production-ballet reflects the growing conservatism in U.S. dance management, the shift from a creative, contemporary stance towards reliance on nostalgic me-too spectacle a la Russe .
Of course, choreographer Kent Stowell is no stranger to this trend. His Pacific Northwest Ballet "Nutcracker" in 1983, and the film version of it last year (Carroll Ballard's "Nutcracker: The Motion Picture"), each achieved international notoriety less through choreography or dancing than through the eccentric, overbearing designs by Maurice Sendak. Underneath the fancy packaging: the same stale sugarplum that's resold each Christmas in junior high school auditoriums and highfalutin culture palaces from coast to coast.
Just as Sendak dominated Stowell's "Nutcracker," so Ming Cho Lee overshadows "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet." Indeed, Lee's highly mobile, High Renaissance towers, arches, balcony, bridge, facades, frescoes, tapestries and chandeliers provide the most inventive and purposeful movement in the entire ballet.
Right from the beginning, when the population of Verona wanders beneath a low, wide portico and suddenly the front set of arches ascends--leaving an open courtyard for the first confrontation between the Montagues and Capulets--Lee permits nearly limitless cinematic fluidity in the staging. Some scenes are tightly enclosed by walls and towers; others flow freely in unobstructed space.
As in Shakespeare's own theater, action and reaction can occur simultaneously on different floor-levels: While Tybalt's and Mercutio's bodies are carried out of the courtyard, for instance, Juliet learns of the killings on an elevated walkway. Moreover, the symmetrical, linear formality of the scenery is perfectly in keeping with the stylistic priorities of classical ballet.
However, the biggest novelty of Stowell's version isn't scenic but musical. "In keeping with the policy of making each full-length uniquely identifiable as a PNB ballet," he has said, "I decided against using the Prokofiev score." Instead, Stowell turned to Tchaikovsky--not, mind you, to Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" fantasy overture, but to a patchwork of symphony and suite excerpts, tone poems (including "Hamlet"), other overtures, plus a number of vocal works.
Stewart Kershaw and Raymond Wilson have assembled the pieces with enormous tact and Kershaw draws sumptuous playing from the ad hoc company orchestra, but the result is a sham. Not only is the musical rhetoric, the way people and events are characterized, utterly different from Tchaikovsky's own theater scores (and markedly inferior to them), but the accompaniment seldom provides more than a general mood-wash for mime scenes staged in the most doggedly literal manner you could imagine.
A freer, more lyrical and primarily dance-oriented "Romeo and Juliet" might succeed with this collage score. Certainly, the international repertory is full of Tchaikovsky story ballets that Tchaikovsky never composed (John Cranko's "Onegin" for starters). But Stowell's frequent, arbitrary shifts from mime to dance, from an emotional/narrative context to formal choreography, from one state of feeling to another are seldom matched by any corresponding change in the music. It just flows on.
The effect is like playing a record album while you project silent home movies--and it undercuts even the best performances by the attractive, well-trained company.
Besides its fundamental disassociation from the music, Stowell's choreography scatters its technical and expressive effects without significantly shaping characterizations, focusing dance-imagery or developing staging ideas. There are a number of pertinent details--for once, the party-crashing Montagues aren't the only masked guests at the ball, for example--but they never add up to much. For most of its length, this "Romeo and Juliet" plays like a plot precis.
The great moments are here, nearly always rushed, reduced, trivialized. The initial swordplay looks especially perfunctory and the Prince's condemnation carries no force or weight. The major events of the love story are usually conveyed in mime, not dancing, and the use of the stage often verges on the ridiculous. (People are always entering and exiting in a big circle--as when Romeo leaves through the left archway of Juliet's bedroom and then passes by the right arch on his way offstage.)
Even the best "Romeo and Juliet" ballets teem with non-roles, sketchy figures who exist only to advance the plot--but Stowell adds Benvolio and Tybalt to the list in his version. Even Mercutio remains underdefined, though Hugh Bigney (Drosselmeyer in "Nutcracker: the Motion Picture") makes him remarkably sweet-natured and fanciful up to his curiously athletic and (as usual) endlessly protracted death solo. Some things never change in old Verona.
Like most companies, Pacific NorthwestBallet offers cast changes aplenty from one performance to the next. One night, you can see the Juliet of Magali Messac (formerly a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre), a ballerina of notable warmth, elegance and dramatic power. (In the gymnastic excesses of the bedroom pas de deux, with Juliet continually coiling on and under Romeo's thigh, Messac manages to look wholly absorbed, and when she caresses his hand, Messac's tenderness tells you more about Juliet than any of the choreography she's given.
At another performance, the ballerina might be Deborah Hadley, a talented, Leslie Browne-ish dancer with a less conventional concept of the role (Juliet as deep, solemn--and wary), but a tendency to look overcalculated in executing it.
Messac's Romeo is Thordal Christensen, with nothing other than his technical plush and sullen Nordic looks to recommend him, but Hadley has Benjamin Houk as her partner and he makes all the difference. Looking somewhat Anthony Dowell-esque (but with an edge of streetwise toughness), Houk dances with exciting, coltish flair and total commitment to each moment--whether it involves stabbing Tybalt (in the back) or leaping to touch Juliet's hand as she leans down from her balcony.
Among the crowds of peasants and nobles, singers and divertissement dancers, guards and children--all elaborately costumed by Theoni V. Aldredge--New York City Ballet alumna Colleen Neary commands special attention as Lady Capulet with her aristocratic bearing and authoritative character-mime.
As Los Angeles audiences had a chance to glimpse this January at UCLA, the dancers of Pacific Northwest Ballet have been schooled by Stowell and his wife Francia Russell to a high degree of versatility. This season they'll attempt everything from Balanchine to Bejart, Paul Taylor to Antony Tudor, with enough home-grown Stowell creations to add that dash of novelty every company needs in the high-profile '80s.
The problem is the number of second-hand, full-length, psuedo-classics on the upcoming schedule: Stowell's "Coppelia" and Stowell's "Nutcracker" besides this new "Romeo and Juliet."
Since Stowell already choreographed a "Swan Lake" six years ago, that pretty much leaves only "Cinderella" yet to be created for his do-it-yourself, retooled-masterpiece repertory collection.
A Stowell "Cinderella": What an opportunity for novelty, for opulence, for something "uniquely identifiable as a PNB ballet"!
Let's see: How about music by Khatchaturian and decor by Dr. Seuss?