By Jane Rosenberg
From opening curtain to final bows, choreographer Alexi Ratmansky, along with his set and costume designer, Richard Hudson, and lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton, hurls us into the very heart of a fifteenth century Renaissance painting in his Romeo and Juliet, created for the National Ballet of Canada and premiering at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend.
With simple yet evocative sets and exquisite costumes, this production has the immediacy of a Pinturicchio fresco. That artist had the ability to breathe life and personality into the daily doings of the contemporary characters who populated his paintings. Like Pinturicchio, Ratmansky has the unique gift of creating personality, not out of paint, of course, but out of movement. In Ratmansky’s world, legs, feet, arms, torso all speak a language, carrying within them humor, whimsy, pathos, and purpose.
For me Ratmansky’s most formidable gift is his ability to infuse movement with wit and levity. He embraces the human spirit in his choreography by exposing our foibles, weaknesses, and desires – those qualities that make us quintessentially human. This aspect of his artistry works to advantage in the early scenes of Romeo and Juliet when the irrepressible youth of Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, and Juliet is in full flower.
Everywhere we turn, whether in the Market Square, at the Capulet’s ball, or in Act One, Scene Two when we meet Juliet and her nurse, the exuberance and optimism of youth shines with truth. In fact, this very exuberance – this love of life and sense of immortality (so brilliantly exemplified in the dancing of Piotr Stanczyk’s Mercutio) — makes the inevitable tragedy all the more painful.
It is in the more serious moments of Shakespeare’s drama where I felt something lacking in the ballet. Perhaps I longed for less movement, less personality, and more stillness. When Guillaume Côté’s superbly danced and deeply felt Romeo partners his Juliet – a childlike Elena Lobsanova – in the post nuptial scene of Act Three, there is a clarity of intention so vivid in the Kenneth MacMillan version that seems clouded here.
In some part it is due to the performance of Lobsanova – a charming, lithe Juliet full of winning delicacy and grace but unable to transcend childish love to give a convincing portrayal of an awakened woman, tortured by overwhelming passion and her inability to enter into her marriage with Romeo in the full light of day.
Much has been written about the age and inexperience of Lobsanova, a second soloist at the National Ballet of Canada when Ratmansky chose her for his Juliet. Now a first soloist, she has been dancing the role for three years. But youth is not a prerequisite for playing Juliet: Alessandra Ferri, at forty, danced Juliet, and her indelible performance was the pinnacle of sexual abandon and dramatic and artistic accomplishment.
It is with the portrayal of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio’s friendship where Ratmansky reaches the heights, as well as with his inventive patterns and stylistic innovations in the crowd and ballroom scenes. His choreography for the three young men is full of unique partnerings, buoyant lifts, and fanciful footwork. His scenes of swordplay, whether between Tybalt and Mercutio or Tybalt and Romeo have the dash of an Errol Flynn movie minus the clichés. In fact, swords are used repeatedly throughout the ballet. In the ballroom scene’s “Dance of the Knights,” the men of the Capulet house dance without the women but with their swords – a militant note that foreshadows the violence to come and is tribal and primitive, conjuring a feudal society where death is a constant threat.
It is followed by the noble dance of the women, which has a civilizing effect on the room – a room arranged with the grandeur of Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Levi. Though Romeo and Juliet is a drama about men’s violence and its devastating effects, women are not merely passive onlookers in Ratmansky’s production. They threaten, cajole, and stand their ground beside their men. It is for them, however, to mourn the loss of their husbands and sons.
In another beautifully realized moment at the ball, reminiscent of the bride and groom lifted on chairs over the heads of the guests at Jewish weddings, Juliet is lifted by Paris, as simultaneously, Romeo is held aloft by Mercutio and Benvolio. The two future lovers lock eyes as they repeatedly soar above the heads of the crowd. Exquisite details of this sort abound in the ballet, but they are the very details that ultimately intrude on the forward momentum to the inevitable tragedy. Ratmansky has created a fully realized Renaissance world but one where the joy of daily life takes precedent over the mythic tragedy of feuding houses.
The atmosphere of the ballet, whether choreographed by MacMillan, Lavrovsky, Cranko, Neumeier, or Ashton, owes its life to Prokofiev’s score – one of the greatest ballet scores of the twentieth century. Under the direction of The National Ballet of Canada’s David Briskin, the Los Angeles musicians gave a fine rendition of Prokofiev’s complex music. However, during some of the more percussive sections, the orchestra members under Briskin sounded as if they were keeping time rather than propelling the music forward to create Prokofiev’s explosive sound – one particularly muddy section happening at the opening of Act Three.
There is no doubt as to the quality of the corps of the NBC. And the principals and soloists are standouts in all roles: Piotr Stanczyk, as mentioned, is a pitch perfect Mercutio – so effortless in his humor and swagger that Ratmansky should consider creating a Commedia dell’arte ballet around him. As Benvolio, Robert Stephen is a delightful and potent member of the trio. McGee Maddox’s Tybalt is imposing and lethal. Lorna Geddes’ Nurse is full of fun and vigor, dressed in an abundance of white fabric, which swaddled her from head to toe. The Friar Lawrence of Peter Ottmann is more dance than mime and he deepens the role with his presence. As Lord and Lady Capulet, Etienne Lavigne and Stephanie Hutchison are elegant and moving. And Patrick Lavoie dances Paris with ardor and humanity, particularly in the welcome simplicity of his Act Three, Scene Three solo with Juliet’s four lovely bridesmaids.
One would imagine that if Ratmansky lingered in Canada with his creation, time would season and deepen this Romeo and Juliet, a stunning addition to the pantheon of memorable versions that have gone before.
Photos courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada.
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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets. Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children