May 15, 2007

Review: Romeo & Juliet

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

My first encounter with Romeo & Juliet was in 9th grade, when our well-meaning teacher asked us to take turns reading the script aloud - for those who adore Shakespeare's use of language and the play's passionate emotions, the comedic awfulness of this proposition should quickly be apparent. Nevertheless, the play became one of my favorite of Shakespeare's works and I've enjoyed seeing various interpretations, including Baz Luhrmann's film and Sondheim's reworking of the story for West Side Story. This past Saturday I experienced the rare pleasure of seeing the story performed by the New York City Ballet, with a score written by Sergei Prokofiev - though lacking Shakespeare's beautiful speeches, the use of motion and music succeeded in conveying the story's tragic romance.

The ballet follows Shakespeare's plot, although certain nuances have been omitted to simplify the story's ability to be conveyed through dance. For the most part, this works well, although not perfectly - the details of Friar Laurence's scheme to reunite the lovers are lost and it's unclear how the lovers learn that they are on opposite sides of a blood feud. Most of all, I would have loved for Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech to have been translated into an increasingly frenzied solo effort, marked by dizzying pirouettes and off-kilter leaps. The dancer portraying him easily captures his quick temper and playfulness, most notably in a strong, agile solo at the Capulet's party, and it's unfortunate that the score lacks an opportunity to demonstrate the character's darker edge. Alas, Profkiev fills out the score instead with pretty dances for the corps, which are sweetly and competently performed and provide an opportunity to admire youthful skill, if not necessarily an advancement of the story.

The core of the plot, of course, is the intense emotion between the doomed lovers - an irrational sentiment, seemingly based entirely on a longing gaze and some poetic speeches, which leads to a hasty marriage and double suicide. Leads must convey this ardor in a believable, heartfelt and heart-wrenching manner - a task which the young Romeo and Juliet in this version accomplished wonderfully. Their most accomplished and emotionally compelling pas de deux takes the place of the famous balcony scene, when the couple confesses their love for one another. Filled with soaring leaps, challenging lifts and a remarkable ability to move together, the dance is a sweeping test to their passionate relationship. When the dance is briefly reprised in a grotesque self-parody at Juliet's tomb, the end of this breathless love affair seems even more lamentable.

The dancer who portrays Juliet merits special mention, both for her technical proficiency and dramatic skills. She first appears dancing to the strains of a light and delicate air, appropriate for the child she is at the time - yet she quickly grows up into a lovestruck young woman and finally a distraught bride who must choose between marrying someone else and putting herself into a coma. As the music darkens in tone, so too does her dancing mature, demonstrating every anxiety and hope that shakes her frame.

Although a beautiful interpretation of the classic romance, the ballet is not flawless - most egregious to the eyes of this casual reviewer were the costumes. When the Capulets and Montagues meet on the streets for a rumble, they wear red and green, respectively - sharply contrasting colors that highlight their opposition. But the main characters are garishly distinguished - Tybalt in a bumblebee-like doublet, Mercutio in vibrant purple. Worse, the corps de ballet at the Capulet party is dressed in elaborately clashing colors, distracting from the steps of the dance. More subtle colors for the background dancers and greater care given to the main characters' dress would have made the costumes an enhancement, rather than a hindrance.

The New York City Ballet's limited run of Romeo & Juliet was quite beautifully done, the dancers' masters of their skill who manage to convey, if not quite the plotline of the story, the intensity of emotions behind it.

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