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Romeo and Juliet

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The website has also been updated with lovely new headshots of the dancers, including new members to the company and promotions.

I hope someone will keep an eye out for Barry Kerollis. It's a shame he didn't stay on longer with Houston Ballet; from what I could tell of him during the first half of the 03-04 season (he wasn't as blessed with prominent roles during the second half), he's a promising dancer and one whose career I will continue to follow.

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I saw The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet this afternoon. Sorry, Old Fashioned, but Barry Kerollis played a friend of Romeo and a court gentlemen in today's performance, and he blended a bit into the crowd. But I'll look for him in other ballets as the season goes on.

This afternoon I saw two of the most impressive debuts that I've seen in over thirty years of attending ballet: Noelani Pantastico as Juliet and Le Yin as Romeo. I could also say that Pantastico was Juliet, and that Yin, whose typical stage persona is more the Mercutio type, was completely convincing as Romeo.

The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is so different from the other versions I've seen that it could almost be a different story; it is simultaneously more fleshed out and more intimate than, for example, the ubiquitous MacMillan, and it has undertones of other Tchaikovsky ballets and operas. The world of the ballet is the world of its young characters, much like in West Side Story, but the focus is on the two protagonists, not the feuding families. Pantastico enters the ball with a tinge of Aurora; she's not the outward focus of all of the guests, but it's the first ball appearance of a rather self-possessed young woman: she behaves formally if joyfully; she's not a giddy child-woman hiding behind her nurse's skirts. In her dance with Paris, to whom she's been introduced at the ball, there's no reticence or shyness. (At this point in the ballet, she doesn't understand that she's being auditioned as a future spouse. Although there's nothing to hold against Paris in this conception, as he seems like a very nice man -- okay, he was Christophe Maraval -- just "Not Romeo.") In his first appearance Romeo could have been mistaken for Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, as he yearned for something different than his typical flirtations, while his friends revelled in them and cajolled him to join them. The fortune tellers in the ballroom scene, in which three commedia del arte characters portray a tragic love triangle, have a similar function to the pastorale in Pique Dame -- the music to which Stowell choreographed the "Masque" in his Nutcracker -- in which the entertainment sheds an ironic light on the tragedy to come. They were accompanied by "Ophelia's First Song" from Hamlet, which was beautifully sung by Anne Carolyn Bird.

And then there was the luscious Tchaikovsky score, pieced together by Stuart Kershaw and Kent Stowell to mainly unfamiliar music. (Not a note of the overture to Romeo and Juliet to be heard.) Where the Prokofiev passage for the "Dance of the Capulets" leads to something too close to goose stepping, the gentle tones of music chosen for this ballet are underscored by a soft ringing bell, which gives a sense of time running out and the impending crisis. The least effective choreography, in my opinion, is for the "Balcony Scene" and is set to what is probably the most familiar excerpt, the Andante from Symphony No. 3, which is the music from Balanchine's Diamonds pas de deux. Ming Cho Lee's sumptuous set takes up a lot of the stage, which I think doesn't give the "big" choreography much space in which to breathe. Which isn't to say that most of the scene is not arresting: Juliet, counter to type, is the aggressor, albeit with moments of retreat. She's the one who keeps Romeo focussed as he seems ready to flee the emotional intensity. In contrast to the passion are heart-rending stretches of gentleness of such originality and simplicity that the "big" choreography seems a bit generic.

Stowell and Kershaw use the other well-known passage, the Pregheria from Mozartiana, which Balanchine used to open the 1980 version of the ballet by the same name, to close both acts -- the wedding scene and the death scene, which in some ways are the same things, togetherness in doom, with the help of Friar Lawrence. In a ballet in which music and gesture are so perfectly timed, perhaps the only false gesture was the crescendo on which Juliet stabs herself during this piece of music, but the rest of the scene, the relatively quiet realization that Romeo is dead, the walk through the tomb, and death of Juliet wrapped in Romeo's arms to a prayer is a beautiful stroke of theater.

For me the greatest scene was the bedroom scene. The music is deeply sad, and for Romeo, any bit of happiness he experiences is like a wound, as is Juliet's despondency at his banishment. Stowell's almost miraculous avoidance of melodrama and sentimentality makes the scene that much more gut wrenching. But even more so, this isn't a ballet of pas de deux, flashy solo, pas de deux, with lots of filler between the "high points". The scenes surrounding the private moments are fleshed out and create a world; they may constrast to the two pas de deux in the type of intensity, but the underlying pulse of the inevitable tragedy is still there in the actions/dances of the other characters.

Still, despite the restraint that allows the characters to shine through, without the consummate skill and talent and taste that Pantastico and Yin brought to the ballet, it would not have been nearly as moving. Yes, they danced beautifully, but when the characterizations are so right as they were in this performance, the steps and technique are almost beside the point.

There was plenty of characterization and very fine dancing among the other characters. Nicholas Ade danced Benvolio, Mercutio's equal in characterization, if not in virtuosity. In this production, Benvolio isn't just a side-kick to the romantic hero and the show-off; he's even as big a hound-dog as Mercutio. Jonathan Porretta was brilliant as Mercutio. When he came out alone with his lute (or mandolin?), I thought I was seeing Stanko Milov in a cameo, Porretta looked so tall. And he moves like a tall dancer. His swordfighting in Act II was simply amazing -- in this production, he was killed only because Romeo interfered, not because he underestimated his circumstances. (Porretta is so talented, it's almost frightening.) It was stunning to see three different, but equal, types of dancing among the men: Porretta's virtuouso Mercutio, Yin's virile and passionate Romeo, and Ade's elegant yet spirited Benvolio.

Carrie Imler played Lady Capulet: what a striking and powerful profile! She portrayed a proud, but loving, mother, and, in Stowell's concept, there was grief, but no pseudo-erotic thrashing at the death of Tybalt. I had forgotten how beautiful the Wedding Scene could be, through Flemming Halby's simple, solemn gestures.

With only enough time to remove their make-up, and not a second to absorb the enormity of these debuts, Pantastico and Yin joined Francia Russell in a post-performance Q&A, a generous gift to the audience. Here are my notes from the Q&A:

As they had at the end of the performance, Pantastico and Yin received a standing ovation from the Q&A crowd.

Russell opened by praising their performances. Most of the time Pantastico and Yin answered the questions and responded to comments, but occasionally, Russell would speak to what was clearly a dear subject: how much she loved this ballet, and how the music and gesture were inextricable. The audience laughed when she started to say that Cranko's version, in which Stowell played the lead, was her favorite version of the story -- she righted herself quickly; Stowell's is her favorite version. About Pantastico and Yin, she said it was a pleasure to be in the studio with them as they worked things out.

Because the dancers know each other so well, it was difficult for them to kiss each other; Stowell let them take a long time to work up to it. Russell noted that with new pairings, it was difficult to know if they'd click. (There are five pairs dancing these roles.) Pantastico and Yin hadn't been paired together before (at least in a story ballet) so the partnership was new. (Pantastico noted that this was her first performance as a Principal Dancer.) She said that at first it was difficult to act as if she felt that way about Yin, because she's engaged -- her fiance and parents were in the audience -- and both she and Yin mimed being stiff and perfunctory at first. Russell said that it was amazing how short a time it took them to click.

There was a lot of discussion about the acting. Russell said that it must look completely spontaneous although perfectly timed to the music, and that this was a real challenge. Pantastico said that by the end it wasn't acting, it felt real. Yin said that the "music takes you there" so he didn't have to act." Russell quoted Louise Nadeau, who danced Juliet last night and whose performance Russell lauded, as saying that the whole role is in Stowell's choreography. When Russell commented that they hadn't rehearsed the curtain calls, but she was impressed by how Pantastico and Yin had stayed in character during them -- some dancers, she said, go straight into "performer mode" -- Yin said that it was hard to pull out of character, and that he felt emotionally drained.

The five couples sharing the lead roles split into two groups. Pantastico and Yin rehearsed with Louise Nadeau and Christophe Maraval, and they started by watching run-throughs. (Nakamura/Wevers and Imler/Herd rehearsed with Barker/Stanton). Although the steps are the same among the casts, Russell said that she and Stowell liked to see each couple add gestures of their own in the context of the music, and that it would be terrible if they were all carbon copies. Pantastico said that their performance was close to Nadeau's/Maraval's. To prepare for the role, she watched Zefferelli's film version of Romeo and Juliet and "even" Leonardo di Caprio's to see how the emotions were portrayed. She also said she watched videos of other ballet R&J's, but that they didn't help emotionally. She had to concentrate on bad things that had happened to her in her life, but once she was onstage, it was easy to remain in character.

Yin said that playing Romeo was really acting. Mercutio, which he's also dancing, was more natural, a character who is "exciting" and into "pissing people off," and although he's a bit of a comedian, he has personality and pride. (Temperamentally, from what I could tell about someone from a Q&A, Yin seemed more attuned to Mercutio than Romeo, which made his portrayal that much more of a triumph.) He said that to prepare, he thinks about the story, so that when he's on stage, he can act the character.

When asked about how they started in dance, Pantastico described movement classes when she was young, with pre-professional training starting at 11. At 13 she said she started to want to do other things, like swimming, but her ballet teacher told her that swimming would make her shoulders funny!

Yin said that he loved to be onstage, and that he loved to be stared at. The story of his training was fascinating: he was good in school, but didn't like to go. He preferred to cut classes and hang out and play video games with his friends. When he was nine, coaches from Beijing came to his school (the city name sounded to me like Nanxing), and his parents told him to give it a try. When he showed up for the audition, the coaches looked him over and told him to stand in a corner. He thought that was it, but out of many (possibly 1000) kids, only he and a girl were left. The coaches tested their flexibility and had them copy dance steps. He said he had no coordination at all, but he was offered a full scholarship, and the coaches told his parents that he was talented. So he was off to Beijing, with six other boys, none of whom knew anything about the conventions of the school.

During the time he was at the school, he was allowed to visit his parents twice a year. Parents weren't allowed to visit, he said; the discipline was too strict. He then described and mimed being hit with the sticks the teachers carried: "(Whack!) Stick your stomach in!" etc.

He was at the school for seven years. He had different teachers until he reached level 4, after which Lin Yang (sp?), now the school principal, said that he would take over training until graduation. When he was 15, two years before graduation, Ben Stevenson visited China, and somehow, Stevenson saw him, and asked him to dinner. Yin said he wasn't really interested -- he had never met a Westerner before -- but he went anyway, and Stevenson offered him a place at Houston Ballet. Yin said he'd wait until graduation, and during the next two years, Stevenson wrote to him. (He received the letters after school officials read and cleared them.)

All of the directors of dance companies in China came to the school's graduation. Each graduate had to rank the companies in the order of their choice, and they were chosen by the company directors, with National Ballet of China getting first pick. Although he wanted to dance in the US, he danced with National Ballet of China for three months. He said it was difficult to get permission to leave; he had to return home as an unemployed person to get a passport. He came to the US not speaking a word of English -- [it is now fluent and colloquial] -- and he had to repay the Chinese government for his training. I just realized he didn't say how he came to Seattle.

Russell said that the orchestra originally was part of the Seattle Symphony, but schedules conflicted. For the last 20 or so years, PNB has had its own orchestra, with many musicians also playing in the Northwest Chamber Orchestra. Because music was so important to her and Stowell, they made an effort to keep the orchestra close to the Company.

Perhaps the best compliment Russell could have made to this pair is that she invited Deborah Hadley, the original Juliet, to see them perform this coming Thursday. Russell said that it was hard for Hadley to see the ballet, because it was the most important role of her career, and one of the most important events in her life, but that the two of them would sit together to watch the performance.

(Those are all of the legible notes.)

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Bravo! Thanks, Helene, for a wonderful review and summary of the Q&A. I haven't seen Noe and Le in these roles (other than peeking at rehearsals), but after reading your review I feel almost as though I did.

I did see Patricia Barker/Jeff Stanton on opening night and Kaori Nakamura/Olivier Wevers last night and they were all marvelous.

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