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Romeo and Juliet 4-5 November 2005


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#1 Helene

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Posted 04 January 2006 - 07:02 PM

On the first weekend of November 05 Ballet Arizona performed a reworked version of Ib Andersen’s Romeo and Juliet on the re-opened Symphony Hall stage. According to Andersen in a pre-performance talk, some of the score was cut, in particular some of the more repetitive music in the last act.

The sets and costumes were by Alain Vaes and rented from Boston Ballet. Except for a few props, like a fountain downstage left and a wares cart rolled in for a crowd scene, Verona was mainly rendered in beautifully painted drops, including columns on both sides of the stage, and a four (?) step staircase that spanned upstage and led to a narrow platform, leaving virtually the entire stage for dance. When a set piece was in a scene – the balcony, the bed, Juliet’s slab and the platforms for the dead in the crypt – they were integral to the scene.

The review in the Arizona Republic was a rave, and the ballet was a huge success, if audience reaction is any gauge. Matinee audiences aren’t known for standing, but many in Saturday’s were up in a flash when the curtain rose on the principals. Saturday evening’s crowd was crackling, at least in the Balcony (the higher of two levels). Sunday afternoon the performance started 15 minutes late, because the crowd – a mere dozen when the box office opened at 1pm – was snaked around the block a little while later. And the reviewer in the AR wasn’t kidding: I was surrounded by audible sniffling after both of Saturday’s performances. (I had to leave after Act II to catch my plane early that evening.) But an even better endorsement: at the matinee, there were many children in the audience, and the kids in my section, including the three beautiful boys in the five-nine year-old-range who were directly in front of me, sat riveted. Forget about The Nutcracker; children should be taken to see this production instead.

Andersen said in the pre-performance talk that the score by Prokofiev is one of the great ballet scores. While I think the cuts helped to make it more so, I think there are places that let the ballet down. One is, in my opinion, the, overly long and repetitive Balcony pas de deux. It’s not particularly conducive to steps, and while Andersen shows that much of the score is, there’s really not a lot that a choreographer can do to match the sensibility of that music but have the dancers run around in circles, jump and lift, and, in that sense, MacMillan hit the mother lode. It took a while before the first MacMillanism crept into the first half of the pas de deux, and it was perfectly appropriate, but as it went on and on, there wasn’t much new to be made of it.

The second place is the music for the aftermath of the death of Tybalt. There’s nothing before it in the score to suggest that Tybalt has any particular meaning for Lady Capulet, and not much in choreography, either – for example, he isn’t her partner in the ball dances – and although she and the other Capulet women are the progeny of the Siren in Prodigal Son, the throes and the thrashing about suggested aren’t foreshadowed in the drama until that point. There was a bit of explaining by parents during the second intermission which followed; it was the one place where the kids were a bit disturbed. What did work dramatically in that scene was that one of the courtesans – I think the one with the fouettes – was on the other side of the stage, distraught by the death of Mercutio. If the Capulets were power-hungry and viperish, the Montagues were callous: only the courtesan, who turned to drink and threw herself at several of the Montague men in her pathetic misery, seemed to care. No one on the Montague side – Romeo having fled – was in mourning black for Mercutio, including Benvolio and another man from his posse.

I’ve seen the MacMillan version primarily for the dancers cast, and five minutes after the performances ended, I could remember very little except the leg kicks in Dance of the Capulets and the two pas de deux. In Andersen’s version, the amount of detail that established the relationships and the context was staggering. The synopsis in the program was skeletal, and I wasn’t able to take notes during the performance, but the following tome was what I remembered from the performances several hours later. (The caveat being that I may have gotten some of the chronology mixed up.

The *****'s will separate the scene-by-scene description.

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The first act ran for an hour, yet it felt like minutes. It opened with an exuberant Romeo in the throes for Rosalind, who was in charge of Juliet’s three cousins. He was joined by Friar Lawrence, whom he grabbed and turned in a happy dance, and then whom he brought downstage left, indicating to the wings that his love was near. At the same time, upstage left, Juliet made a short appearance with her nurse, waving to her offstage cousins and Rosalind. When the cousins and Rosalind appeared, Romeo had eyes only for Rosalind, who was delayed by Romeo, and who gave him a flower, while the cousins joined Juliet. His destiny was in plain sight, but he saw no one but The One, a myopia that plagued the character until his death. As the women leave, Romeo was joined in the square by Benvolio, locals, and three courtesans, from behind whom Mercutio popped, masked. Mercutio had a solo in the fluid style Andersen often uses for male virtuosity, but in the character of a smart aleck. Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio danced a passage which was repeated several times in the ballet: the first in portraying them as blood brothers on the make and happy for trouble before they crash the Capulet ball, the second after Romeo appeared in party clothes at the beginning of the second act, as Mercutio and Benvolio tried to ensure that he hadn’t changed and is still one of them, and lastly, with Mercutio only, after Mercutio was wounded fatally.

Into the scene came an unattributed Capulet, who picked a fight with the unarmed trio after the fairly unconvincing excuse that he wanted one of the Montagues’ women. Throughout the ballet the women tried to distract the men from yet another fight; having clients kill each other was not in the best interest of the courtesans or the young women who are attracted to all of the men. (No partisanship here.) What followed was one of three terrific – and convincing -- swordfights in the ballet between the Capulet and one of the Montagues (I cannot remember which). The fighting was a combination of standard lunges and feints with occasional huge back assemble jumps. Tybalt showed up with some of the other Capulets, and after more posturing, the stage erupted in a full-scale sword fight. The energy in this scene was remarkable, because as carefully placed as the men were, there were a lot of swords flying. The Lords Capulet and Montague joined in the fight upstage center, until the Duke of Verona put an end to it. The fathers first lay down their swords in a cross, followed by each pair of fighters. Four pages – they looked like teenagers from the school – picked up the swords, and each pair of men went through the motions of reconciliation. At the end of the scene, Romeo received Rosalind’s invitation to the ball, which thrilled him.

In the first fifteen minutes Andersen established a pattern and a framework that extended throughout the ballet: short spurts of traditional mime, vignettes that furthered the story, solos in character that furthered the plot, group dances that established the relationships between the characters, and terrific and realistic-looking swordfights. I say realistic, because the law of the streets can be as codified as the conventions of the epee tournament.

The second scene introduced the dancing Juliet, who, with her cousins was playing a game with a long scarf, eventually trapping her Nurse in it. The games stopped when the formidable Lady Capulet and, in this scene, the loving father Lord Capulet arrived. They brought Paris with them to make the introduction. Juliet danced with him shyly, intermittently breaking to join her cousins. They left to prepare for the ball, with Juliet’s slow realization that her parents were trying to match her up.

Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio tried to crash the ball in a number of amusing ways and were rebuffed. They took off their capes and mask and dance the “boys dance,” and then helped the daydreaming Romeo back into his cape and mask entered the palace unopposed.

The Dance of the Capulets opened the ballroom scene. The men began with a series of patterns that were as aggressive as the music, with wide side steps and lateral arms, claiming the space around them. It was a marked contrast to the forward kicks in the MacMillan version. The women had a move that is equally aggressive but oblique, unlike the wide forward stance of the men: with one arm in high fifth and the other in front, they arched backwards and raised their forward arm almost as if they were chugging. It was broken up several times by Juliet’s public pas de deux with Paris, a lovely dance for Juliet and her three cousins which emphasized the arms and hands – it was a perfect fit for Paola Hartley, with her soft, fluid arms – and during which Romeo got her attention, discombobulating her for the first time. It was also broken by a solo for Juliet which became more expansive until the Capulets became suspicious of Romeo, who had caught her eye. (Poor Paris probably believed that it was he and their expected courtship that was inspiring her.) Romeo and Juliet ran off, and most of the guest dispersed from the ballroom, leaving Mercutio and Benvolio, who danced happily with Juliet’s flirtatious cousins, further infiltrating the Capulet family. (Not that it was hard work: they were pretty and willing.)

Juliet entered the now empty ballroom and Romeo observed her joy and infatuation. When she spied him, she tried to hide a bit at first; in response, he made a gesture that was repeated to great emotional effect: they looked at each other with their faces close, but instead of kissing her, Romeo looked down to one of her hands and took it in his. Tybalt spied Juliet and the unmasked Romeo, and spent a few minutes observing, before interrupting the scene. Although Romeo put on his mask quickly, Tybalt, who was suspicious anyway, recognized Romeo and tried to separate the two, which Juliet didn’t quite understand. Soon the others joined them, and Tybalt outed Romeo. Tybalt was ready to boot him from the premises, but Lord Capulet intervened, and allowed Romeo and his friends to stay. I’m not sure if this was entirely in the spirit of the Duke of Verona’s decree, because in the ensuing group dance Lord Capulet made it very clear to his guest that Juliet belonged to Paris, as far as the family was concerned.

The ending through the scene transition was a bit fuzzy dramatically to me, as the ballroom scene, instead of ending, fades out as the lights dimmed on the dancers and the music got very soft, again like a fadeout. I think the next small scene was meant to show guests leaving the party, but because the entrance drop was used, it wasn’t completely clear. In the scene, Romeo rejected Rosalind to the amazement of his friends – he did this again in the next act, but by then they knew why. Benvolio and Mercutio went through the portal in one direction, and Romeo left in another.

When the curtain rose, Romeo rushed to Juliet’s balcony, located upstage right. Not expecting her to appear, Romeo retreated downstage left and watched her send the nurse inside. He observed her alone until Mercutio and Benvolio came rushing through, waving to her as they ran by. (The night was still young for them.) Only then did Romeo address her. After they grasped hands through the balcony rails, he broke into a jumping turning solo, all aimed at impressing her, ending on the floor in a back roll. He then went up on the balcony, and after their gaze met, he looked down at her hand and took it in his. She responded with a gesture of romantic surrender, bending back, as he lay his head on her breast. He then accompanied her in a few gentle phrases, including a small lift. He had to convince her to come down from the balcony, where they launched into a full-blown pas de deux. As Juliet began her solo “monologue” to him, he, who had knelt to kiss her hands, fell on his back in a faux faint, and judging from the audience reaction, much to the delight of it. He joined her again, and again, and they found themselves upstage, looking at each other; he looked down and took her hand. They both sat, she with one leg extended back, before he kissed her for the first time. She then retreated up the balcony, and they grasped hands through the rails. Curtain.

Act II opened with a snappy solo for Benvolio in the Marketplace, and soon he was joined by Mercutio and the other Montagues, the courtesans, town girls, and Juliet’s cousins, who’d freed themselves from the watchful eyes of Rosalind. After Benvolio and Mercutio made fun of Romeo, who was still in his party clothes, they brought him back to being part of the trio in the “boys dance,” followed by a group dance with remarkable energy, sweep, and interchanging patterns. The Nurse arrived with a note from Juliet, and Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio flirted with and flattered the Nurse, becoming more outrageous and out of hand until Benvolio groped her. This was completely in character, though; these were boys who never know when to stop. The scene led to Romeo reading the note and changed to Romeo seeking out the church, so that he and Juliet could be married. The Romeo who arrives at the church was an impatient boy, and Friar Lawrence had to repeatedly remind him that he was in a church. When Juliet arrived with the Nurse, she and Romeo embraced, and Friar Lawrence again needed to remind them where they were. (Which led to another comic, but telling moment, as they crossed themselves with comic frenzy. They still didn’t get it.) The Friar patiently started from the beginning and brought them both to a solemn and respectful place, after which they embraced and were separated again.

The next scene returned to the Marketplace, where Tybalt showed up, and, under the flimsiest of excuses started the fatal set of fights. At first, the women were able to distract him, but finally he challenged Mercutio. Friar Lawrence tried to intervene, and his last attempt caused Mercutio, who had been beating Tybalt badly, to walk into Tybalts waiting sword. Mercutio was in character until the end: he danced the “boys dance” until the pain in his side was too great; he recovered and droped his sword in Romeos hand. He danced with his courtesan, again until the pain was too much. He taunted Tybalt, mocking him, until he fell to the ground. At first aghast, the crowd then believed he was faking it, and they applauded and gestured to him to get up. Romeo nudged him with his boot, until he turned over his friend and realized that his hands were full of blood, and that Mercutio was really dead. After Romeo left the body, Mercutio’s courtesan grieved painfully it. He then picked up the sword and charged after Tybalt, killing him. At that moment, Lady Capulet arrived, and Romeo, aghast at what he’d done, tried to apologize. She saw the dead body of Tybalt, and began thrashing and emoting. Romeo again tried to beg forgiveness; she rejected him out of hand, and she pushed away Lord Capulet, who tried to take her home. The courtesan was dragged away from Mercutio, and Romeo now grieved over the body of his friend, as Friar Lawrence and the Montagues threw him his cape and pushed him to flee. Curtain on Lady Capulet emoting some more.

Act III began with the bedroom scene, as Romeo tried to leave without waking Juliet, unsuccessfully. They dance a more serious, but still passionate, pas de deux, after which he fled into exile. Pretending to sleep, Juliet was “awakened” by her parents and Paris. Insisting that she marry Paris – Tybalt’s body wasn’t even cold yet – Juliet tried to rebel. Her father attempted to strike her but was stopped by Lady Capulet. Juliet reluctantly danced with Paris, but broke away. When even the Nurse wouldn’t side with her and pushed her to Paris – doubly bad because the Nurse witnessed her marriage to Romeo – she knew she needed help. When her parents and Paris left until she “came to her senses,” she rushed out to see Friar Lawrence. On her way, Romeo appeared on stage – the two fleeing at the same time, but in different directions. Friar Lawrence tried to give her the sleeping potion, and she was afraid. Across the stage was a vignette, showing (an alternate) Juliet taking the poison, falling asleep, looking as if she is dead, but awakened by Romeo’s kiss, and enacting the simple choreography on the balcony. Juliet took the bottle and stole home. When her parents and Paris came back, she tried one more time to convince them not to make her marry Paris. When this failed, after they left, she took the potion and crawled to her bed. The next day, her cousins found her “dead,” and called her parents, who began to mourn her death.

The final scene began with the Juliet’s funeral procession in front of a black curtain, followed by Mercutio’s grieving and drunken courtesan, in a scene that established that it was business as usual for the Montagues. Romeo met the grieving Nurse and believed the worst. Friar Lawrence learned that Romeo believed Juliet to be dead, and he tried unsuccessfully to intercept him. When the curtain rises, Juliet was on a raised slab midstage, covered by a transparent white sheet. One by one the Capulets lay a lily on her lifeless body and left the crypt.

Romeo arrived, threw off the sheet and flowers, and danced with her lifeless body, trying in vain to revive her. He stabbed himself. She awakened and came downstage to find herself walled into a crypt with dead bodies. She stumbled upon Romeo’s body, realized that he’d stabbed himself, and used the same knife to stab herself. There was no Romeo/Paris fight or anyone to find the two of them dead together. Final curtain.

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My experience with the productions of the ballet set to Prokofiev’s score is limited: half a dozen performances of the MacMillan, Sean Lavery’s balcony scene for NYCB, and the La Scala Ballet version that was memorable solely because it was the only time I saw Margot Fonteyn on stage, as Lady Capulet. I can’t compare them to Kent Stowell’s version of the ballet, which is set to a score made of pieces by Tchaikovsky, most of them obscure, because the musical demands are so different, although in sensibility, Andersen’s is closest to it. Two things are evident in the choreography: both the Bournonville DNA and the institutional and pedagogical understanding Andersen brings to the stage in the structure of the ballet.

While there were some notable group dances and the two pas de deux, there were many places where the choreography could not be separated from the story, like in Juliet’s “solo” where her interaction with Romeo under the eyes of her family is intrinsically woven into the fabric of the scene; for that reason, it could neither be a competition solo nor was it comparable to a stand-alone variation. Ultimately, I think the true strength of the work was that it was agnostic to the interpretations of the main characters; it received very different performances from the two casts.

Paola Hartley danced both matinees, partnered by Astrit Zejnati. Hers started as an innocent portrayal, gradually gaining depth as the story progressed; when Friar Lawrence put her in charge of their fate, there was a chance that the head on her shoulders would prevail. Zejnati portrayed a young European man, and more confident and savvy, if not more experienced, than Michael Cook in the evening cast, who partnered Natalia Magniacaballi. To take a specific instance, before the balcony scene, when Romeo hid downstage left as Benvolio and Mercutio waved to Juliet and headed off, Zejnati took the moment to savor the meeting and the night air, and then approached Juliet directly. The coast clear, Cook hesitated and almost retreated for a moment, as if stuck in place, before he took the leap to approach her. From the little jut of her chin when her parents entered her room to present her to Paris, it was clear that she was headstrong and had a mind of her own, although not much experience through which to know how strong the opposition was.

The secondary leads were equally different. Joseph Cavanaugh’s Tybalt was a high born snob, through and through. (What posture and hauteur.) He got his hands dirty when he had to in order to keep his family clean, but he didn’t live for it. Zejnati, playing the anti-Romeo in the evening performance, was someone you did not want to meet in a dark alley, the type who would relish tearing out someone’s throat. His Mercutio seemed like he had spent all night in the pub before the fatal second act fight scene, and there’s nothing like excessive drinking to encourage violence, although he needed little encouragement anyway. It was a remarkable shift in character from matinee to evening to matinee. Both Mercutios were men of the streets, although Nikolai Moroz’ character was a bit darker, while Elye Olson’s was more smart alecky, as was his portrayal of Benvolio in the alternate cast. James Russell Toth’s Benvolio was more measured, but at the same time more differentiated from his friends. Ilir Shtylla danced Paris in both performances, and he was a very sympathetic character, caught in a mess not of his own making.

In the most recent newsletter from the Ballet Arizona guild, there was an article about three dancers from Ukraine, Moroz, Sergei Perkovskii, and Vitaly Breusenko, who studied together and then have looked out for each other professionally since. The Company is very lucky to have three dancers whose training in mime and character is so apparent, especially in a ballet like Romeo and Juliet.

#2 carbro

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Posted 04 January 2006 - 08:38 PM

You've really recreated the ballet for us, Helene. Such a thoughtful and thorough and vivid review! Thanks for all the time and effort you put into this.

#3 bart

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Posted 05 January 2006 - 08:05 AM

Excellent. :wink: I love this ballet and score. You made me think about other productions (MacMillan version) I've seen and how they differ and/or are similar.

The arrogance of power seems well presented in this version. I like the variant you describe in the Dance of the Knights, with movement and control of space outward and to the side of their bodies. Was this a kind of Henry VIII striding with legs wide apart? . Does Anderson's version preserve the MacMilllan lines of dancers moving ominously towards the audience?

Question: what are Mercutio and Benvolio doing in what is usually presented as Juliet's private garden, apparently on such good terms with her? Romeo has to sneak in. How did his friends get access? I'm also having a hard time thinking of the music in this scene that would support such business.

I'm glad I'll have a few chances to see this live later this winter, even with the rather uninspsiring Vicente Nebrada choreography. (Beautiful productdion, though.) It's still a stunning story. And score.

For comparison, has anyone seen the Neumeier, which, as explained by Alexaanra on another thread, is apparently the version that Anderson danced with the Royal Danes? (See thread on "Anything Goes.")

#4 Helene

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Posted 05 January 2006 - 09:43 AM

I like the variant you describe in the Dance of the Knights, with movement and control of space outward and to the side of their bodies.  Was this a kind of Henry VIII striding with legs wide apart?  .

Henry VIII is a perfect image, especially with the older men in doublets.

Does Anderson's version preserve the MacMilllan lines of dancers moving ominously towards the audience?

The movement goes downstage, but that isn't what was ominous about it. The lateral movement was: here were men who were establishing their space, almost like battle lines.

Question:  what are Mercutio and Benvolio doing in what is usually presented as Juliet's private garden, apparently on such good terms with her?  Romeo has to sneak in.  How did his friends get access?  I'm also having a hard time thinking of the music in this scene that would support such business.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

All three went in the same entrance, but Mercutio and Benvolio ran across the stage, waving, and then exited the opposite side. It took place in seconds; they were just passing through on their way to more mayhem. (Perhaps to have balcony scenes of their own with Juliet's cousins?)


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