The task at hand is a review of “Romeo and Juliet,” but more on that in a minute. What needs to be said first is this: In our moment of political and pandemic chaos, Peter Boal is doing an extraordinary job of connecting his company to its public with a spirit of empathy, vulnerability, and humility.
Three programs into PNB’s digital repertory season, I’ve learned it’s not the dancing per se I look forward to most, but rather the whole auxiliary experience. For instance, I look forward to—and always start with—Boal’s “Director’s Notebook.” While most artistic directors struggle to extend a stiff, obligatory welcome, Boal writes in a warm, personal voice. For this “Romeo and Juliet” (or rather, “Roméo et Juliette,” since this is a production imported from Les Ballets de Monte Carlo), Boal writes that “We are, collectively, what is referred to in drama as the Greek chorus.” He writes of how we look on with horror and futility at the violence between irreconcilable factions in America today, and he calls us “my fellow choristers who once sat together in the darkness of McCaw hall.” He writes of how theater opens us to empathy and he stresses his admiration for Juliette’s strength. He describes seeing the original Ballets de Monte Carlo cast, and he tells us to “look towards a better, brighter future filled with dance, theater, compassion and hope.” I end this note feeling that Boal really does understand me, and we are truly in this together, and no, the world is not OK, but a larger story will prevail.
Then there’s what happens when I push “play” on the performance. First we get to meet principal James Yoichi Moore, as he gently reminds us that a dancer’s career is short, and asks us to support PNB’s Second Stage fund to help retiring dancers bridge to their off-stage lives. And now we hear the orchestra warming up. But instead of jumping directly to the curtain’s rise, we see our Juliette, Noelani Pantastico, backstage. We hear her voice, sharing how much she wishes she could be dancing live for us, how much she feels her most authentic and vulnerable self in the middle of performance. We watch her leave her dressing room and make her way to the wings as she invites to imagine, with her, that we really are present and live together.
There is more, later, to envelop us. There is an interview between Boal, Pantastico, and Moore, and there is footage from 2016 of the original Monte Carlo Juliette, Bernice Coppieters, coaching the lead couple through the balcony scene. You’re tempted to spend a whole day lost in this PNB world coming at you through your computer—there’s also a podcast with musicologist Doug Fullington, and a feature on the costume designer—not so much because the clips are educational as because of the atmosphere they draw you into. I mean, everyone seems so amazingly, relievingly humane.
Now to this performance itself. I preferred this version by Jean-Christophe Maillot to the standard MacMillan/Cranko-esque production most of us know. It uses the Prokofiev score whole and unadulterated, but it does away with the velveteen faux-Verona clutter of elaborate sets and costumes. Set designer Ernest Pignon-Ernest supplies instead a brilliant bit of stagecraft: Huge white squares that move to define space architecturally while letting Dominique Drillot’s lighting and your imagination supply the rest. There’s also a gently-graded ramp at the back of the stage that stands in for Juliette’s balcony. I don’t think I have ever been so continuously thrilled by the ingeniousness of scene transitions. And Jerome Kaplan’s minimalist costumes hit the sweet spot between theatricality and naturalism.
The choreography does this, too. “Romeo and Juliet” choreography has never been that classical, anyway, and so the movement here, with a bit more roil in the spine and some passages of sharp, stark arms (but also dueling pirouettes in place of a sword fight!) does not feel aggressively avant garde. Maillot is terrific at whirling kaleidoscopes in crowd scenes, and at the center of the 2.5 hours is a spectacular balcony scene, the most realistic and convincingly orgasmic I’ve encountered. In this “R&J,” it’s Juliette who at last clutches Romeo’s face and brings his lips to hers. And when later they kiss again, her head rising from his lap, her pointe shoe-clad feet wiggle with touching believability.
Pantastico could not have been better as Juliette, with her wide-open face and her convincing spontaneity. Her Romeo Moore is muscly, sweet, and very sweaty, flying cleanly in his jetés and stumbling with abandon across the whole stage as he reels hormonally. (This is a production of much round-the-stage stumbling.)
I’ve conveniently passed over the whole matter of Friar Lawrence at the center of the production, opening the story with a scream, staging a play-within-the-play in the town square, appearing in Juliette’s bedroom with the potion. I cannot work out his dominance thematically—if he is meant to emphasize the element of chance over fate in tragedy, as Maillot reasoned, why does he act out the lover’s fate with puppets? True, it was stupid of him to give Juliette the poison, but this is called a plot device, not further proof of religion’s great evil. At any rate, Miles Pertl dances the role with such convincing anguish that I give up questioning. The other standouts in this filming are Laura Tisserand as an abusive Lady Capulet, and Jonathan Porretta as a lovable Mercutio.
Next up in PNB’s digital season are freshly created and captured works: world premieres by Alejandro Cerrudo and the legendary Donald Byrd. At a time when Americans seem siloed into separate realities, PNB’s is the world I choose to live in.