I had the opportunity to see a FUCKING AMAZING show on Sunday at PNB.
Though I had taken classes at Pacific Northwest Ballet a few years ago, I had never seen them in live performance. My friends and I arrived about fifteen minutes after the box office opened to find about a hundred people ahead of us in line.
The wait was well worth it, though. This version of Romeo and Juliette was set to Prokofiev’s classic score, but it was choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot and first set on Les Ballet de Monte-Carlo in 1996. And holy shit WHY HAS NOBODY EVER TOLD ME ABOUT HIM BEFORE?
It was amazing. Between attending American Dance Festival 2014 and living in Portland, I thought I had seen a decent selection of contemporary ballet. This was nothing like anything I had seen by Ballet Preljacaj or the Michael Clark Company.
This was the most perfect contemporary ballet I have ever seen, and it was exactly what I wanted to see that evening. It was still Romeo and Juliette. They were still wearing pointe shoes and the costumes were gorgeous and made sense, but there were no tutus. All of the costumes, designed by Jerome Kaplan, moved so nicely and it was easy to see who was a Capulet and who was a Montague even from very far away. This was all set against a genius landscape of white geometric shapes; these were periodically moved across the stage in different arrangements to be a street, a party, a bedroom, and so on. It was so abstract and perfect; it became whatever your mind needed to see. I believe it was designed by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, if I’m reading this program correctly, and the beautifully textured lighting was by Dominique Drillot.
Then there was the movement. We saw lots of beats and extensions and multiple impressive turns and leaps so high that they seemed to hang in the air. But there were also lots of flexed hands and feet and contractions. The dancers moved in and out of the floor when they needed to, even in their pointe shoes. The ballroom/party scene gave a good show of partner work where the ladies were swung around on the floor and used their partners’ momentum to get them back up to standing.
I appreciated the makeover of characters like the friar and the nurse. The nurse was not relegated to a character actress whose job it was to hobble around dainty Juliette. In Maillot’s version, the nurse was in pointe shoes in a big dress that moved, and while some of her movement was artistically clumsy and theatrical, she still danced and turned and extended like the rest of them. Her character shone through while allowing her to dance fully without being relegated to pantomime. The friar, too, really stole the show. He shone particularly in the second act, his stark movements in contrast to the fluidity of the doomed lovers. He faced the audience head on and acted like a chorus who broke the fourth wall.
The movement wasn’t just beautiful, and the characters weren’t just well crafted, though. Overall, the entire ballet was compositionally exceptional. It’s a story that we all know, but it was never boring. I was always surprised.
I know that reviews raved about the balcony scene, but, and perhaps I’m just showing my true colors here, I am obsessed with Tybalt’s death scene. So we all kind of know how this goes: Tybalt, the Capulet patriarch, who doesn’t like Romeo or his Montague pals, gets into a fight with Romeo’s friend Mercutio. Mercutio dies, and Romeo kills Tybalt.
This scene is usually straightforward. They pantomime, they duel with swords (which seems hella difficult), and Mercutio dies, and then Romeo cried and kills Tybalt with a sword. It’s all fairly straight forward.
What Maillot did, though, was create an insane amount of tension and anticipation for a scene that most people already knew the ending to. Against the building music, Maillot slowed the dancers down so that everyone was in a big street brawl, all in slow motion. I cannot fathom how difficult this was to put together. Not only did all the dancers have to move slowly – and move slowly as they picked each other up, went into and out of the floor, reacted to getting punched – they all had to move at the same rate of slow. It was insane.
And then came the death, and suddenly the ultimate chaos became a spiral as the Montagues and Capulets dragged their dead on white sheets in a yin-yang pattern across the stage as Lady Capulet came out and stole the show with her rage.
This is the Ballet Monte Carlo performing part of the scene. It’s very different without the build and without seeing it live, of course. I don’t feel like this video did it justice at all. Even up on the very highest and farthest tier away from the stage, I was on the edge of my seat, drawn into the chaos.
Another detail that made this an overall great ballet was the use of fabric. It was a murder weapon, a means of transport for the bodies, a symbol of death, a sheet, an archway for a wedding. It was all very simple and elegantly handled. This entire show was a great example of how to use props effectively.
So why the hell have I never heard of Jean-Christophe Maillot before? I’m appalled at everyone who knew about this and never mentioned it. It was completely worth the hour and a half wait to get my ticket, and I wish I could have seen it again. According to the program, PNB has commissioned Maillot to choreograph a Cinderella that will premiere next year. I will definitely start saving up now for an orchestra level ticket.