Dance Review: ROMEO AND JULIET (Joffrey Ballet)

by Tony Frankel on March 12, 2018

in Dance,Theater-Los Angeles

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It’s as if choreographer Krzysztof Pastor, director of the Polish National Ballet, gave Prokofiev the opportunity to protest Stalin’s tyranny that he never had in 1940. Pastor’s two-act treatment of the Russian’s celebrated three-act ballet carries no Renaissance finery, just real-world immediacy. Premiered by the Scottish Ballet in 2008, this muscular treatment of ancient Verona isolates the lovers all the more against a police state run by shakedown families who do not seem reconciled by the tragic end.

Now, four years since its U.S. premiere with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, the company returns to L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the updated version of Romeo and Juliet, which re-roots the lovers in modernistic postwar Italy. Slick and lean, this literally black-and-white world (with maroon thrown in to suggest blood as much as life, and baby blue for the young lovers) is beset with unfinished business — the festering rancor of Mussolini’s black-shirted fascist thugs (the Capulets) against the carefree and celebratory successful resistance (the Montagues). The public always played a part in even the most traditional versions of this burnished romance, but Pastor makes them observers (or spies) even in the lovers’ supposedly intimate pas de deux after a ballroom scene that’s even colder than usual.

Performed with Tatyana Van Walsum’s near-monochromatic sets and vaguely 1950s costumes — bobbysoxer and hep-cat casual ware versus militaristic uniforms — against a severe totalitarian backdrop reminiscent of De Chirico “Brutalist” cityscapes, this Spartan tale of star-crossed lovers utilizes a multimedia video backdrop depicts three political eras (essentially from Mussolini through the Red Brigade of the 1950s to Berlusconi in the 1990s) through grainy and unfocused newsreel footage of assorted atrocities, natural and human. But depicting the lovers as orphans of several storms is confusing to say the least, especially given that R&J stay in the same outfits throughout the ballet. This is one reason why this effort goes from enthralling to exciting to fair.

Still, Pastor’s dance creation plays interesting tricks, like giving Friar Lawrence a lovely, late-blooming pas de deux with Juliet before she accepts his poisonous solution. The street fights carry the usual contagious violence, but here too elderly onlookers at the back give the brawls a very public perspective. The action, especially in the first half, feels quicker, with the ensemble movements suitably swift and cutting — lurching and twisting like the music — from rhapsodic leaps to deadly close intermingling.

As for moving the lovers’ liebestod moving from the 16th century to the Eisenhower Era, aesthetically speaking, feels more faithful. Given a Renaissance setting, Prokofiev’s music was already instantly anachronistic when first presented in 1938. (Shakespeare, of course, kept it relatively contemporary.) Bringing Romeo and Juliet closer to the ballet’s time of origin confers accuracy and authenticity on the score, which retains its sumptuous, sometimes scary orchestrations (Scott Speck superbly directs the wonderful Music Center orchestra).

It seems that Pastor was truly inspired, given the splendid thugging and mugging in the first act, but the updating began to peter out by the third act. Whatever one can say about whether or not this ballet even needed updating (Canada Ballet’s 2014 visit here with Ratmansky’s version – which had the swordplay this one could have used – was extraordinary in every way), one thing was truly off at Sunday’s matinee:

Dylan Gutierrez, who has played Romeo many times, was woefully miscast here. Palpably older than the supposedly 16-year-old Romeo, the very-tall Gutierrez, who has always been supple and elegant, lacked emotion, and was sweating up a storm – it looked like his heart and body were just not into it. He did far better work in the death scene, but he seemed unenthused and uninspired overall. Gutierrez was even more out of place next to the petite and ever wary Juliet, played engagingly by the lithe and still somewhat immature dancer, Jeraldine Mendoza – which ironically projected her innocence magnificently. When Rory Hohenstein, who played Romeo at last Saturday’s opening, appeared as Friar Lawrence, you could instantly see which audience got the better Romeo. It also didn’t help that the movement for their many pas de deux didn’t strike me as alluring and captivating. Shouldn’t the lovers be flying through time and space while their cohorts remain earthbound? Here, it was the other way around.

But what a supporting cast! Hulking Fabrice Calmels loomed malignantly as the death merchant Capulet, the underutilized April Daly was grace epitomized as his wife, Miguel Angel Blanco menaced magnificently as Tybalt, and, as Juliet’s friends, Anais Bueno and Nicole Ciapponi were both outstanding enough to play Juliet themselves.

The runaway hit of the ballet was Derrick Agnoletti as the bittersweet comic relief, the doomed and mercurial Mercutio. The character touches – mimicking and mocking — were as good as any actor, but the height of his leaps and graceful athleticism were pure genius. Interestingly, unlike Shakespeare, Mercutio’s death is really on him, so to speak: It doesn’t happen as Romeo clumsily tries to stop the fight. No, his best friend is literally stabbed in the back by Tybalt.

You won’t bathe in reflections of romantic escapism during Pastor’s 140-minute agitprop revision. It may be lesser in feeling than the traditional version, but to its credit it updates 16th-century familial rivalry to our own modern meanness.

previous productions photos: Cheryl Mann

Romeo and Juliet
Joffrey Ballet
presented by Glorya Kaufman Dance
at the Music Center
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand
ends on March 17, 2018
for tickets, call 213.972-0711
or visit Music Center

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