See it and weep

Romeo and Juliet dance to their death in PNB's evocative production.

During the death scene, the man sitting on my right at Pacific Northwest Ballet's The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet wept openly. As did the woman on my left and many others around me. An emotional response to this Shakespearean tragedy was not, however, the evening's revelation. Audiences expect the story of impossible love to move them. What did seem remarkable was that Kent Stowell's choreography had elicited such feedback.

Romeo and Juliet

Opera House, June 10

In the eight years I've been watching ballets by PNB's coartistic director, I've often felt mystified, even angered by his choreographic choices: movement phrasing unconsciously at odds with musical phrasing; a hyperventilating flurry of steps; and a heavy-handed stamp of gender clich鳮 Discerning the point of many of Stowell's ballets can be as frustrating and futile as trying to unscramble substance from babbling. In both cases, the muddled blur invites you to tune out. But with Romeo and Juliet (which premiered in 1987), Stowell seemed to tap into a rare introspective side of his choreographic vision. The result is uncharacteristically clear—lovely, transparent, and evocative.

Of course Stowell did not create this ballet in a vacuum. Collaborators Ming Cho Lee (sets), Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes), and Randall G. Chiarelli (lighting) achieved a marvelous symbiosis. And, although at times jarring, Stowell's decision to use over a dozen snatches from Tchaikovsky's canon, including excerpts from Hamlet, the "Manfred" Symphony, and Mozartiana, works surprisingly well in furthering the overall theme.

Many of the over 80 ballets based on Shakespeare's tale are set to Prokofiev's melodramatic 1935 score and feature three acts of mature, passionate characters in a context of baroque opulence. In contrast, Stowell's team opted for a spare yet bold two-act Italian Renaissance fresco. A monastic courtyard of stucco arches, clear soft light, and costumes in saturated shades of burgundy, blue, and burnt umber recall the delicacy of works by Fra Angelico and Masaccio. Stowell's toned-down, even reticent crowd scenes highlight the extremely youthful exuberance of Ross Yearsley's Romeo and Louise Nadeau's Juliet. The contrast, augmented by white costumes for the leads, also furthers the wondrous illusion of lovers existing in a heavenly universe all their own.

Vladislav Bourakov as Mercutio stole the first scene of Act II with a stellar street fight followed by an agonized death. But it was Nadeau and Yearsley's superb acting that carried the evening. Nadeau beautifully captured the essence of a lithe, pre-adolescent Juliet, believably virginal (although Nadeau is a mother) and without a trace of the shrill quality she can sometimes bring to more abstract work. Yearsley embodied Romeo as a dignified yet sensitive young poet, heartbreakingly tender and racked with guilt after murdering Juliet's cousin Tybalt. Barely out of childhood, perhaps 13 or 14, Stowell's Romeo and Juliet still frolic like colts and blush over physical contact. They are young lovers in the courtly sense—their intimacy is spiritual, not sexual. Stowell's repeated motif of gently kissed fingertips reaching for lips emphasizes the chaste nature of the union. When we see Romeo and Juliet awake together, we understand immediately that the lovers spent the night engaged only in whispers and delicate nestling.

The couple's unfulfilled potential renders their deaths especially tragic. The brilliance of this production is in its unfettered directness and simplicity. At the end, when after stabbing herself over Romeo's poisoned body, Juliet slides her hand into his and dies, we mourn not only the young lovers but our own loss of innocence and hope. Stowell's Romeo and Juliet doesn't just give us what we want; it reminds us of what we already know.

 
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