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This past week, Pacific Northwest Ballet offered audience members of the New York City Center a Valentine in the form of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo and JulietThis contemporary rendering of the Bard’s classic tale of the “star-crossed lovers” demonstrated how this story could be removed from the world of the traditional and familiar and placed into an abstract setting. The tale was told almost entirely through dance without the usual use of props and gimmicks such as swords and literal set pieces. While taking a few liberties with the original story, Maillot’s rendition of Shakespeare’s masterwork took risks and played out in such a way that the dance had as much substance as the actual words of the playwright.

PNB principal dancers Kaori Nakamura and James Moore in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Positioned against a stark stage of white, which consisted of a ramp and moving walls, we met Friar Laurence and his two acolytes. Along with the removal of the presence of the Lords Montague and Capulet, as well as the Prince of Verona, the embellishment of the Friar and the addition of the acolytes were the only major character changes. William Lin-Yee, as the Friar, gave one of the most consistent performances of the evening. He embodied a man who, along with the usual marrying of the young couple and doubling as the apothecary, represented a ghost-like persona that painstakingly foreshadowed and controlled the fate of the lovers. Maillot also used the Friar to facilitate seamless scene changes, which gave the production a smooth, cinematic polish.

While chock full of technical, contemporary elements, Maillot’s choreography still called for acute execution of the ballet vernacular. For the most part, the dancers of the company acted as well as they danced, but I would have loved to see more aggression in the rift between the warring families. Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio, danced by James Moore, Ezra Thompson, and Benjamin Griffiths, embodied the youthful and clown-like element that the camaraderie of their characters dictated. The Capulet faction, led by Tybalt (Batkhurel Bold) needed more menacing strength in order to counteract this humor and make the fights more believable. As for the fighting, I missed the swords; although, I applaud the choreographer’s risky choice to attempt something different.

PNB principal dancers Carla Körbes and Seth Orza in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Maillot’s angular and gestured style was a feast for the eyes, but when the full company was on stage, it could be hard to focus on the action of the story. Where he really excelled was in the relationships between lead players. As the Nurse, Rachel Foster delivered a laugh out loud performance that personified the character’s lusty yet nurturing nature as she chased Juliet and flirted with the Montague gents.

As Juliet, Kaori Nakamura’s performance soared from the moment we met her as a blossoming young lady discovering her newly found womanhood to the final heart-wrenching, ear-piercing silence of her screams once she learned of her lover’s death.

Combined with the commanding innocence of Moore, I loved Maillot’s choice to show a school-yard innocence in the relationship of the two. From the time they first kiss to the almost humorous and somewhat clumsy nature of the consummation of their marriage, he allowed us to relate to what they were experiencing. Maillot was sensitive to the true nature of a young couple, especially given the time period of the piece. They would kiss, then bashfully run away. They would flirtatiously shove each other. This gave the audience the chance to see the couple make discoveries as they fell in love.

PNB principal dancer Karel Cruz (center) as Friar Laurence, with (l-r) soloist Jerome Tisserand and corps de ballet dancer Andrew Bartee in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo © Angela Sterling.

The mandolin dance of the second act ingeniously used a puppet show to foreshadow the upcoming events. However, in lieu of weaponry, the prop “fist” of one of the dolls was used as a club to deliver a slow-motion blow to the head, killing Mercutio. ‘Death by puppet’ wasn’t the most effective means for Mercutio’s demise. That part of the ballet shouldn’t be funny. What did work was Romeo’s strangulation of Tybalt with the scarf covered by Mercutio’s blood. Perhaps this could have been remedied if the Capulet’s intensity was raised. Maria Chapman should also be noted for her passionate and technical delivery of the incestuous relationship between Lady Capulet and Tybalt, which rose to a technically stellar ending of Act Two.

Over all, this was an incredible production. Pacific Northwest Ballet has been a solid institution in the dance world for years, and the demands of Romeo and Juliet served as a reminder that it has more strengths than just Balanchine repertoire. New York was fortunate to host them for the first time since 1996, and with live music by the PNB orchestra, under the baton of Emil de Cou, who could ask for anything more?

Click here to watch PNB principals talk about R&J

Written by Matthew Donnell

Matthew Donnell

A graduate of North Carolina School of the arts, Matthew Donnell is a freelance dancer, actor, clown, instructor, and film maker residing in NYC. After a decade with the Kansas City Ballet, he turned his focus toward musical theater and teaching. He strives to bring the humor of his life into his art in order to promote artistic health for himself and those around him.