Last week, Pacific Northwest Ballet made its first appearance in New York City since 1996. After one evening of a Balanchine triple bill, the Seattle-based company, led by artistic director and former New York City Ballet principal dancer Peter Boal, performed Jean-Christophe Maillot’s full-length Roméo et Juliette for its remaining three performances at New York City Center. This contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragic love story uses Prokofiev’s score (performed marvelously by the Pacific Northwest Ballet orchestra, with Emil de Cou conducting) but takes great liberty with the narrative. The sensual, gesture-rich choreography is the most significant trait of this striking version of the well-known play, with Carla Körbes and Seth Orza giving radiant, captivating performances in the title roles.
During the overture, the credits flash on a scrim listing dancers in lead roles, offering a cinematic feel to the performance. Friar Laurence (performed by William Yin-Lee) is the storyteller here, accompanied by two acolytes, weaving his way through the ballet as he laments the events that unfold. A recurring moment – arms raised, back arched, and mouth open in a scream – conveys Friar Laurence’s tortured state, even as he facilitates the star-crossed lovers’ destiny with the hope of a happy ending.
Up until the balcony scene, the story unfolds quite similarly to that of the play, with the one exception being the absence of Juliet’s father and the Prince of Verona. They’re nowhere to be found in this production. There are a few other oddities. In Act II, Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio walk through a street festival and watch a puppet show, which happens to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet. While watching the fighting families (puppets punch each other in the face), Romeo grows visibly upset and leaves. Perhaps Maillot was paying tribute to Shakespeare’s frequent “play within a play” motif, or a way to integrate Friar Laurence and the acolytes into this scene, for they are the puppeteers.
Deaths are portrayed without the usual weapons. Tybalt uses the hand of one of the puppets to (unconvincingly) whack Mercutio on the head, and Romeo chokes Tybalt to death with a scarf. Juliet drinks a potion, though the audience never sees an actual vial, and upon finding Juliet lifeless, Romeo (who possesses neither sword nor poison) runs into the point of Juliet’s bed, causing him to bleed to death. As Juliet mourns over Romeo, she pulls a red scarf from his chest, and uses it to strangle herself. Though not always believable, Maillot’s choices here align with the rest of the spare production.
Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s set designs consist of white, moveable parts, along with a ramp that raises and lowers, most importantly for the balcony scene, and a triangle-shaped platform that serves as Juliet’s bed. The costumes, by Jerome Kaplan, include elegant silver and gold frocks for the women (Lady Capulet and Friar Laurence are the only ones who wear black), white tunics for the Montagues, and dark gray for the Capulets.
The movement shifts quickly from fluid to jerky, with myriad upper-body gestures and mime. As Juliet, Carla Körbes is a jumpy, skittish teenager while getting ready for the ball with the help of the Nurse. Later, lyrical passages that show off her incredible line and the flexibility of her back suggest Juliet’s coming of age, and eventual enchantment with Romeo. One motif throughout the ballet is the use of the arm to make an S-shaped movement as it rises above the head, symbolizing the union of the two houses.
There is a heavy, albeit refreshing, dependence on the use of touch to convey both humor and intimacy. Nearly every character, but especially Mercutio and Benvolio, is obsessed with breasts. Fondling abounds; it was humorous in Act I but became overkill as it continued through Act II, with Mercutio never missing an opportunity to ham it up.
Yet, the intimacy revealed through the use of touch was mesmerizing in Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene. The closeness between the two, the enthrallment with one another and absolute ecstasy of having found one another was felt so purely and deeply. At one point Romeo runs his lips up her arm; at another Juliet presses the top of her head into his collarbone. What the audience witnessed was so believable that for a moment I forgot they were even performing. Carla Körbes is wonderfully expressive. Watching her face alone was intriguing, but her whole movement quality is filled with joy and honesty. Nothing is ever hidden from the audience. Both she and Seth Orza are such seamless, fluid movers that perhaps they made the choreography look even better than it was. It would be interesting to see how Maillot’s choreography would look performed by a company with less technical prowess than Pacific Northwest.
The sensuality of the two lead characters makes Roméo et Juliette moving and memorable. Maillot’s story telling is unique, the intimacy and physicality refreshing, and the spare design pleasing to the eye. With such a shining orchestral performance and brilliant dancers, I hope to see this production again, and hope another seventeen years doesn’t pass before PNB returns to New York.