The Atlanta Ballet’s production of “Roméo et Juliette” is spectacular. Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot’s choreographic interpretation of the Shakespeare play is genius, a word I use next-to-never. The dancing on opening night at the Cobb Energy Center was exquisitely presented, the casting was perfect, and the audience’s impression of the characters was changed forever.
It may seem like a stretch to choose a ballet about two young lovers who die as this year’s Valentine’s Day production, but so many enduring romances end in tragedy—and Shakespeare’s story of the youngsters who catapulted themselves into disaster has been beloved of audiences and readers for over 400 years. (Besides, recently Atlanta Ballet has not been a company to follow a traditional path. Last year’s Valentine’s Day performance was “Dracula”!)
The Prokofiev “Romeo and Juliet” ballet score was written in 1935. When Prokofiev first presented the score to the Bolshoi Ballet in 1935, it was considered not danceable, and was rejected. Today, many critics consider it the best ballet score ever written, and it has many choreographic versions, from Frederick Ashton’s 1955 work for the Royal Danish Ballet, to the 2007 creation by Peter Martins for the New York City Ballet. The original score was unearthed in the Russian State Archives and given its world premiere July 4, 2008, at New York State’s Bard College, with choreography by Mark Morris.
Despite the popularity of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, it is not the only score for a ballet about these famous, star-crossed lovers. Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who was fascinated and inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare, wrote a Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy in 1869, and it has become one of the best-loved Tchaikovsky ballets, along with Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and America’s adored The Nutcracker.
With that history behind it, the ballet arrived at the Cobb Energy Center in The Atlanta Ballet’s production of Roméo et Juliette on February 7, with the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra, and the audience was blown away by what Artistic Director John McFall calls “the signature version.” It was predicted that we would see “smoke coming from the orchestra pit.” I didn’t see smoke, but the conductor and his highly accomplished musicians definitely earned their paychecks for their performance of this score.
Maillot has included subtle movement and visual references to other great artistic works—if you watch very closely, you may catch a glimpse of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” as the dancers oscillate seamlessly between contemporary and traditional ballet movement—but Maillot’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s most famous love story is otherwise unique. The ballet is starkly minimalist, without the massive sets and prolific props usually seen in Romeo and Juliet productions. Atlanta Ballet has partnered with Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet in producing—may I use the word “genius” again?—the sets designed by Ernest Pignon-Ernest. A collection of curved, white, movable walls bisected by a narrow ramp allow the audience to move from scene to scene, indoors and out. They are canvases for subtle lighting and are sometimes used as props. A stool or two and the occasional piece of fabric round out the décor. A program note informs the audience that “Mr. Pignon-Ernest rejects art created for exhibitions and museums.” He has created the museum walls before the art is hung; it is a perfect background for the dance. Jérome Kaplan’s simple costumes are equally effective.
The choreography is edgy and contemporary, with unexpected angles juxtaposed with flowing curves, but we are treated to flashes of traditional ballet pyrotechnics as well: four men in simultaneous pirouettes a la séconde, batterie at the speed of light, exquisite arabesques and developpés. The dancers move incredibly quickly: although the excitement ensnares the audience, this is also a dancers’ ballet; the dancers fling themselves through space and time, leaving the audience gasping for air. They fly like Blue Angels on a romp; the stage seems too small to contain them. Observers can tell they love dancing this piece; they own the movement. We are convinced that their characters are real, even when they are conveying intricately difficult passages. It is amazing that they can even remember the complex choreography, which is filled with subtle nuances delivered at speed, much less gift it to us so expertly.
In most theatrical productions of “Romeo and Juliet,” Friar Laurence is a kindly man overwhelmed by good intentions. In Maillot’s ballet, he is the architect of the action and the ultimate manipulator. In this production, Friar Laurence opens the ballet. The role is masterfully danced by John Welker, accompanied by two acolytes (may I say “minions”?) who do not exist in the original script. The story is seen through his eyes, and they are the eyes of a tortured soul whose desire to promote good results in calamity. The figures from the play that are most familiar are The Nurse and Lady Capulet, danced by Rachel Van Buskirk and Christine Winkler. In other departures from Shakespeare’s play, Juliette’s father is absent, Rosaline is present, and there is no happy ending with the Montagues and Capulets reunited. The ballet ends with a lot of dead bodies: Tybalt, Mercutio, Roméo, and Juliette.
Tybalt, danced by Georgia’s own Jonah Hooper, was a convincing bad guy with great technique. Appropriately dressed in black, he spent most of the evening spoiling for the fight he eventually got. Mercutio was performed by the dynamic and mercurial Heath Gill, who was greeted by the audience with screams of joy during the now-familiar standing ovation at the curtain call. It was well-deserved.
But it was the complexity of Roméo and Juliette themselves that made this version of the story work so well. I’m used to the leading characters in this play being portrayed as youngsters in first love, swept away by the political situation in their town, unaware of the results of their naiveté.
This pair seemed more sophisticated and more aware of the politics of their world. In the balcony scene, with Juliette at the apex of the center stage ramp, she presents her back, her arms appearing to be the wings of an angel, perhaps foreshadowing her death. Later, Juliette proffers the inside of her wrist and her throat to Roméo in delicate gestures cognizant of the dangers of entrusting her most vulnerable pulse-points. We also see passion deeply felt by adolescent brains awash in hormones, two characters that are playful, yet mature and intense. They manipulate Friar Laurence even as he is manipulating them. The marriage night in Juliette’s room is one of the most subtly sexual, yet charmingly tender, pas de deux I have ever seen. There is a moment in which Roméo kneels, pressing his cheek to Juliette’s ankle, then slowly traces her outline with that cheek, ending standing in a kiss that caused the audience to hold its collective breath.
I left the theatre feeling speechless. It took many hours for words to come back. Whether you are new to dance, love classical ballet, or gravitate to modern dance, if there is one must-see story-ballet, this is it. Atlanta Ballet’s “Roméo et Juliette” will be at the Cobb Energy Center through February 15, so there is just time to reserve your tickets.