Torment lends itself well to memorable artistry—harsh brushstrokes and brash dissonance, tortured body angles and gut-rending lines of verse, all in the name of this rarely-felt, never-forgotten feeling. And when you take a classic tale of torment born of fundamental themes (love, duty, family, revenge) and layer it with Prokofiev’s sinuous modern score and Jean-Christophe Maillot’s even more contemporary choreography, you get Pacific Northwest Ballet’s rendition of Roméo et Juliette, one of the most heartwrenching nights at the ballet I’ve ever experienced.
The performance began with Artistic Director Peter Boal’s traditional opening-night remarks and promotions, as soloist William Lin-Yee advanced to principal, and corps de ballet members Leah Merchant and Kyle Davis were promoted to soloist rank. As Prokofiev’s evocative overture began, a projection of minimalist movie-style credits splashed across the scrim, giving audience members a chance to cheer for their favorite dancer as their names appeared.
Following Shakespeare play, Roméo et Juliette tells the story of the star-crossed lovers with a smoldering arc as misfortunes pile up, animosities grow, plans are hatched, and everything moves to a tragic end with a sense of fatalism. The minimal set design (Ernest Pignon-Ernest) echoes this fatalistic tone: Inherently ominous, but easily manipulated with light for a scuffle in the sunny town square or the moon-bathed balcony scene. Especially poignant is the spartan use of mise-en-scene to enhance pivotal moments, such as the couple’s wedding beneath a cloth Möbius strip, and the menacing, stretched shadow of a cross to suggest the crypt in which Juliet fakes her death.
Friar Laurence (Miles Pertl), the catalyst of the many misfortunes in the show, is the first dancer to emerge. Flanked with disturbing symmetry by two acolytes, Friar Laurence’s movements are tense, strained, almost psychotic. Amid the tragedy, comic relief in the persons of Juliet’s Nurse (Margaret Mullin) and Romeo’s buddies Mercutio and Benvolio (Jonathan Porretta and Benjamin Griffiths) is more than welcome. Mullin’s fabulous marionette-like motions set the house giggling, and Porretta’s bold and mischievous moves (including perhaps one too many instances of motorboating) made it all the more melancholy when he was mortally wounded. Laura Tisserand captured the scheming, power-hungry matriarch, Lady Capulet, and delivered one of the most raw and explosive solos of the night following Tybalt’s untimely death.
This show necessitates serious character development, and the result is an extraordinarily rich feat of storytelling. PNB’s soloists and ensembles were equally excellent with Maillot’s choreography and inhabited their characters with precision based on families, personality, role and rank. The ensemble-heavy first scene establishes the rivalry between the two families with ease and playfulness: the Montagues, in folksy pastels and bawdy choreography, and Capulets, dark and regal in both costuming and movement. However, the ensemble-heavy nature of these scenes delays the reveal of its central characters. It assumes a familiarity with the play, or a thorough reading of the program notes, so first-time audiences may feel a bit lost and must be content with a slow immersion in the Veronese pageantry on stage. (I myself had nailed down at least three dancers I was certain were Romeo before finally settling on James Moore in his unassuming white costume.)
Moore’s passionate and sensitive Romeo was the perfect foil to Noelani Pantastico’s sprightly Juliet. Their combined energy well portrayed the raging hormones of teenage lovers, the unavoidable swell of lust and the pattering hearts. Too often we see interpretations of mature Romeos and experienced Juliets, seasoned actors playing a well-loved role. Moore and Pantastico’s unbridled interpretation remained young and vibrant until the bitter end. (Credit where it’s due to whoever did the casting: I’m sure the fact that the two dancers are among the shortest in the cast did not go unconsidered.)
The final death scene plunges suddenly into the maturity of heartbreak, and Moore and Pantastico face it with naïve bravado. In a creative staging twist, Romeo impales himself onto the sharp corner of his lover’s deathbed; Juliet, horrorstruck with what she finds upon awakening, draws out his blood represented by a red silken scarf, and strangles herself with it in a final act of eternal devotion. Despite the mythic quality that Shakespeare’s tale holds in our culture, these characters were admirably human. The balcony scene left Juliet audibly catching her breath in a lovelorn gasp as the curtain fell for intermission, and Lady Capulet’s inescapable grief was made obvious by her shower of unkempt long hair and choked sobs.
As heartbreaking as the choreography choices were in Friday’s production, it was the PNB orchestra who shone most consistently through Roméo et Juliette. Directed by Emil de Cou with his characteristic sensitivity and expression, the mastery of Prokofiev’s moments of passionate tension, psychotic torment and angelic suspension was absolutely magical. The overture left my stomach turning in the most glorious way. Juliet’s motif, simultaneously seductive and tragic, betrayed her inescapable end with a single gorgeous glissando. The music of the Capulet’s masquerade twisted the scene into a raunchy ball, a perverse polka of predetermination.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Roméo et Juliette runs, appropriately, through Valentine’s Day (secure your tickets here). Go to have your heart broken by a single two-bar phrase. Go to feel the exhilaration of a covert underage rendezvous. But mostly, go to get your heart torn apart by fate, by passion and by art.