Under the commanding, yet nuanced conducting of Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, currently celebrating its 100th birthday in grand style—including commissioning dozens of new works and offering numerous city-wide events—sounded splendid in Prokofiev’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Composed in 1935, the 130-minute score is one of ballet’s iconic pieces of music (played for the first time in its entirety by the Phil), with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers continuing to live—and die—on stage, television and the silver screen. (Steven Spielberg will be remaking the 1961 film with the famed Bernstein score, though one has to wonder why.)
Indeed, for this performance, Benjamin Millepied was tapped to choreograph and direct his L.A. Dance Project in several scenes of the ballet. Intended to be the first iteration of a forthcoming full-length experience, the live event, according to the press notes, was fused with “a cinematic exploration of Walt Disney Concert Hall,” Frank Gehry’s acoustical and architectural wonder. With Millepied behind the camera (the Frenchman has directed a slew of short dance films in recent years, with his musical adaptation of “Carmen” scheduled to be released in 2019), the audience was able to follow the couple and their cohorts as they seamlessly transitioned from stage to screen, with the action projected live (on a screen above the orchestra) as the story played out in unexpected locations throughout the building.
In addition to making use of backstage spaces, the garden area and the exterior of the Hall, itself, where dancers were reflected in the curvy steel surfaces, Millepied cannily cast two of his three lead dancers as same sex partners. On Saturday, Rachelle Rafailedes and Patricia Zhou were Romeo and Juliet, respectively. For the final performance on Sunday, seen by this writer, Aaron Carr and Mario Gonzalez performed the titular roles. And although none could ever be mistaken for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev—or the host of other seminal ballet stars who have been identified with the doomed duo—this is an “R & J” for our time.
Clad in street clothes and sneakers, and beautifully lit by François-Pierre Couture, the dancers burst onto the stage much like the Sharks and Jets of Robbins’ 1957 Broadway production of “West Side Story” (Ivo van Hove is set to helm a new Great White Way version, with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker choreographing.) This was Verona by way of Venice—California—that is. With the brass section in riotous mode and the strings, tympani and organ a frenzy of sound, including intermittent offstage French horns, the Phil never sounded better. And with Prokofiev’s motifs threaded throughout, the music seared into one’s brain, what could Millepied do with his steps that haven’t been done before?
In truth, not that much, but context—and concept—are everything: During the “Dance of the Knights” and the Capulets’ Ball there was the mask-clad ensemble moving rhythmically—hands shooting upwards and bodies thrusting against backstage walls—to the familiar theme that has been heard over the years in everything from a Chanel ad to sampled excerpts from musicians including Sia and a Tribe Called Quest. Wildly triumphant, sweet and with ominous dissonance foreshadowing the tragedy to come, the music served the dancers well: They were exuberant and carefree in unisons and backbends, even essaying a whimsical ring-around-the-rosy.
When Romeo first spots Juliet, Millepied’s camera swoops in for close-ups before revealing the troupe, still in gyration mode. As for the Balcony Scene (Dudamel also conducted selections from “R & J” last year at the Hollywood Bowl, with Misty Copeland dancing, but in a far too brief appearance), Carr’s Romeo, back in the Hall, races up the stairs with Millepied trailing closely behind—before making his way to the garden where he danced with Gonzalez’ Juliet.
This pas de deux—unexpected, lovely and never precious—was performed amid the greenery and undulating surfaces surrounding the amphitheater. The pair even took to the ground, rolling on top of each other, finally looking up at the sky to arpeggiating flutes.
Whether the late Lillian Disney, who gave the initial $50 million to build the Hall, would have approved, we’ll never know, but the giant rose—her favorite flower and made from 200 crushed Royal Delft porcelain vases—was also on view, lending another spark of passion to this ultra-modern rendering.
Back indoors, it was a treat to hear mandolinists perform their jaunty duet while the two men neo-jigged onstage before the girls came bounding out. Bending and dipping, they were the epitome of joy. Alas, these bodies bursting with life would soon come to know how a festering feud wreaks havoc and catastrophe in their midst, making us all, in effect, feel doomed, with Mercutio’s murder by Tybalt (a sterling Nathan B. Makolandra), played out on the confines of a murky backstage and through the file-cabineted corridor of the Philharmonic’s offices.
Dudamel and his players thrilled with their own unique wall of sound, which was often punctuated with achingly beautiful solos, be it a bassoon, oboe or violin. After intermission, the work inextricably moving towards its karmic calamity, the recurring themes proved aural bursts of longing and heartache. Finally, in Juliet’s tomb—underneath the Hall replete with columns and wiring—Romeo was alone with his beloved, and in a duet worthy of the music, the couple was love and loss manifest. Carr, carrying Gonzalez’ lifeless body as if the weight of the world were on him, returned to the stage where he took a bottle of pills from the unconscious Juliet and popped them himself (hello, opioid crisis!). As Juliet stirred, awakening to discover Romeo gone, Gonzales offered a kneeling finale, with the orchestra, ever so quietly, fading into the late afternoon.
Dudamel’s precise yet emotional conducting, in combination with the dancers, which also included Doug Baum, Anthony Lee Bryant, David Adrian Freeland, Jr., Madison Hicks and Daisy Jacobson, breathed new life into the tale that continues to provide solace—however momentary—from an increasingly bleak world.