The familiar love story of Romeo and Juliet is stripped to austere simplicity in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s presentation of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s contemporary retelling.
When the curtain rises on opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Roméo et Juliette, the audience is met with a simple set devoid of color, and the tall, dark figure of a guilt-ridden Friar Laurence (Miles Pertl). He and his acolytes frame this rendition of Shakespeare’s tragedy, divested of its rich Italian coverings by choreographer and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo director Jean-Christophe Maillot. What is left is raw emotion, performed to Prokofiev’s soaring score with heart-breaking perfection by PNB’s cast .
Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo veterans Gaby Baars and Bernice Coppieters travel the world staging Maillot's contemporary ballets. For the past few weeks, they have been assisting the dancers of PNB in achieving the nuanced peformance Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette demands.
“It really has to be the perfect balance between the interpretation of a role in the most honest way that we can do it. That’s very different of classical ballet, where sometimes it becomes a little bit caricatural,” says Coppieters, who originated Maillot’s Juliet and played the role over 200 times. “It has to be very honest, very deep and profound coming from, really, a real place inside of you, of yourself, so that people — when we are watching it — we can be touched.”
Any dancer who has experienced Maillot’s direction understands this, evidenced by the performance of opening night’s Juliet, Noelani Pantastico. Originally from Oahu, Hawaii, Pantastico joined PNB in 1997, leaving to dance with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in 2008. Now, she’s back in Seattle, with a powerful new take on her leading role.
“It’s wonderful now to have her back here, and I feel like she’s pulling all the dancers of the company that know a little bit less of the work of Jean-Christophe ... she has it in her body now, so she’s pulling them with her,” says Coppieters. “It’s so beautiful to watch.”
Maillot’s interpretation of Prokofiev’s classical score is bare-bones: there are no elaborate costumes or sets, no swords or potion bottles. Rather, the story is dependent on the ability of the dancers to communicate through movement and expression. Gone is the miming of narration we would see in a ballet like Coppélia or Sleeping Beauty. The choreography, full of exquisitely long lines and dynamic curves, speaks for itself.
The characters change, too. Friar Laurence becomes a sensual figure who feels immense regret for the part he plays in the tragedy. He swings from slow, sorrowful movement to sweeping, angry gestures, trying at several moments to stop time, forcing the dancers into leaden, deliberate movement. He wants nothing more than to keep the story from reaching its inevitable conclusion.
Benvolio (Benjamin Griffiths) and Mercutio (Jonathan Porretta) spend most of their time on stage teasing the women with sexual attention, or fighting with the Capulets. The black-costumed, imposing leader of that family, Tybalt (Seth Orza), is clearly the villain of the piece. It is difficult to find a redeeming quality in him, as even his protection of Juliet is selfish in his desire to hurt the Montagues.
Lady Capulet is no different. Played by an aristocratic Laura Tisserand in a sleek black dress that seems made for her, Juliet’s mother is more interested in men for herself than for her daughter. She is quick to anger and to passion, at the ultimate cost of her family.
Comic relief is provided by The Nurse (Margaret Mullin), whose interactions with Romeo’s Montague friends are often over-the-top in their facetiousness. At the same time, her affection for her charge is evident, and the pain she feels upon discovering Juliet lifeless in her bed comes from the real, honest place Coppieters says is required for a Maillot production.
But of course, despite Friar Laurence’s best efforts and despite the characters raging in the background, the story belongs to the lovers. In the erotically charged setting of their feuding families, Romeo and Juliet’s love is refreshingly pure. James Moore’s Romeo is charmingly innocent and naive, while Pantastico’s Juliet is a powerful, contemporary version of Shakespeare’s original. Everything in their relationship happens on her terms. Juliet knows that Romeo is who and what she wants, and she pursues her desire until the last few, haunting notes.
Ultimately, this is what Maillot wants to convey. Everything, from the casting to the choreography, revolves around Juliet. She is the perfect balance between reason and passion, explains Coppieters, adding that, to Maillot, “Romeo is a lover, and Juliet is love.”