State Theater, New Brunswick, NJ; October 11, 2013

Jerry Hochman

Karen Leslie Moscato (Juliet) and Mattia Pallozzi (Romeo) in American Repertory Ballet's 'Romeo and Juliet'. Photo © Leighton Chen

Karen Leslie Moscato (Juliet) and Mattia Pallozzi (Romeo) in American Repertory Ballet’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Photo © Leighton Chen

When seen in April, American Repertory Ballet’s new production of “Romeo and Juliet,” choreographed by Artistic Director, Douglas Martin, was somewhat of a work in progress; highly promising, but incomplete. At the ballet’s formal premiere at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ, on a larger stage; with finished choreography, sets and costumes; and accompanied by a live orchestra, the promise of that preview has been fulfilled. While this may be a “Romeo and Juliet” on a compact scale and one that relies as much on Martin’s dancers’ hearts as their technical abilities, it is a small miracle: a rendering of the story that is both simply-told and compelling.

Mr. Martin is particularly adept at choreographing stage-spanning activity. When the action takes place in the Verona piazza, every inch of the stage (even the larger, State Theater stage) is full of movement, but it never looks busy. The Commedia dell’Arte scene is crowded, but appropriately so. More significantly, the show put on by the players, and the interaction between the players and the townsfolk, allows for considerable choreographic variety, and is both realistic and well-executed. Also noteworthy are the swordfight scenes, which are every bit as accomplished now, both choreographically and as executed by the dancers, as I observed them to be previously, with no appearance of ‘mass’ synchronization. Similarly, the ballroom scene is a model of powerful group movement on a small scale, but that still allows for intricate gestures that are almost, but not quite, throwaways. For example, this Romeo and Juliet do not first see each other from across a crowded room, or by one accidentally – or accidentally on purpose – bumping into the other. Here, Juliet spies Romeo, and he her, while she is dancing with Paris. Both react subtly, but the seed of interest has been planted and the brief encounter looks less ‘staged’ than in other versions.

This lack of any sense of being ‘programmed’ applies not only to the movement quality, but to variations in the story as it usually unfolds. In Mr. Martin’s version, one of the villagers killed in the initial swordfight is a girl. It’s calculated to engender a greater emotional response from the viewer than to limit injury to the combatants alone, and it works. And the dance for Juliet’s ‘Girlfriends’ when they enter her bedroom to awaken her for her wedding to Paris, instead of being some sort of disconnected ‘good morning’ dance, or ‘Juliet’s getting married so why don’t we dance for her even though she’s asleep and can’t see us’ dance, is clearly connected to the imminent wedding – the girls playing with the bridal dress that Juliet will wear, and imagining what it would look and feel like on them.

Compared with the preview, the larger stage allows the production to breathe, and cures many of the ills observed previously . There is room, now, for the corps to move about in the background without being conspicuously and awkwardly frozen. Consequently, there is no sense that dancers are marking time when the choreographic attention is focused elsewhere. Additionally, the Nurse, the Duke of Verona, Paris, and Friar Laurence have now been given more to do (or the larger stage makes what they do more apparent). They’re real characters, not cardboard adjuncts. The use of a full set (minimal though it is) mandated other changes. Previously, the ballet’s beginning – when Romeo is courting Rosaline – was forgettable. Now Romeo playfully tosses stones at her house to encourage her to come outside, which gives the brief scene some needed context (although it’s a little too close to Albrecht and Giselle). And in the Act I balcony pas de deux, there is now a balcony onto which Romeo romantically lifts Juliet as the pas de deux concludes. It’s a perfect ending to the scene, and every bit as emotionally moving as having Juliet and Romeo reach toward each other after Juliet sprints up a winding staircase to her balcony.

American Repertory Ballet in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Photo © Leighton Chen

American Repertory Ballet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Photo © Leighton Chen

But the larger stage also revealed some drawbacks. The compressed space in the previous preview performance focused the action on Romeo and Juliet, and the choreography for them filled the viewing space. On a larger stage, the pas de deux looks lost at certain points, traveling back and forth across the space for no reason. Although other versions of Romeo and Juliet do the same thing, they ‘cover’ it with more choreographic variety. And in the bedroom scene, after Romeo departs, Juliet is seen looking and yearning for him with the same extended arm and facial expression repeated too many times and from too many different places. The problem here is rooted in the limitations of the set: there’s no ‘window’ through which Romeo departs, so there’s no window to which Juliet is drawn to look for him – he’s just ‘out there’ somewhere. Also, without clear entrance and exit points, characters are required to appear or leave via the wings or from behind a piece of scenery (for example, Tybalt and his entourage unceremoniously stroll onto the piazza in the first scene; Juliet somehow comes down from her balcony and emerges from behind it as the balcony pas de deux begins; and Romeo enters the crypt by suddenly ‘appearing’ from behind the bier).

But in the overall scheme of things, these are minor criticisms, and largely a product of budgetary restraints that limited the complexity of the sets. And although the presence of a live orchestra, as opposed to a familiar ‘fixed’ recording, may have created some relatively insignificant timing issues (for example, a critical moment in Romeo’s swordfight with Tybalt was not in sync with the music), the presence of the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra added immeasurably to the evening’s success. Under the leadership of conductor Kynan Johns, the orchestra treated the audience to a quality concert that enhanced and complemented the performance on stage, but that did not overwhelm it.

With a few exceptions, the dancers were the same as had performed in the preview and danced as well or better than they did before.

Karen Leslie Moscato and Mattia Pallozzi reprised their roles as Juliet and Romeo. Although I would have appreciated more nuanced acting (Ms. Moscato’s Juliet still seems to be just as happy to be dancing with Paris in Act I as she is with Romeo, even after she meets him; and during the bedroom scene following Tybalt’s death, Romeo’s banishment and imminent departure doesn’t register on her face until halfway through the scene), this is not critical. What is critical is to make her love for Romeo believable: that is, to convey rapture convincingly both through her execution of Mr. Martin’s choreography and her acting, and in this respect Ms. Moscato, a product of the Princeton Ballet School (ARB’s affiliated school), continues to shine. Her ‘scream’ upon recognizing that Romeo is dead, the last of many such stage screams that foreshadow this one, is still spine-tingling.

Alexander Dutko as Mercutio and Stephen Campanella as Benvolio in American Repertory Ballet's 'Romeo and Juliet'. Photo © Leighton Chen

Alexander Dutko as Mercutio and Stephen Campanella as Benvolio in American Repertory Ballet’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Photo © Leighton Chen

Mr. Pallozzi’s portrayal has improved significantly since the spring performance. He’s still the sweet and sincere ‘Romeo next door’, but his execution is now cleaner, and the ‘rough edges’ I noticed previously are less pronounced. He was particularly impressive in his partnering, including his mastery of Mr. Martin’s complex shoulder lifts, twists, and turns. He and Ms. Moscato made everything look natural and unforced, although I must confess that I thought he was going to drop her as he transported her from the stage floor onto her balcony at the conclusion of the balcony pas de deux, he pulled it off.

Alexander Dutko and Stephen Campanella again danced Mercutio and Benvolio. Both gave finely textured portrayals, combining bravado with sensitivity, but Mr. Dutko made the most of his more choreographically flashy role and was particularly impressive.

Samantha Gullace and Shaye Firer repeated their roles as Romeo’s and Mercutio’s companions, while Nanako Yamamoto played Benvolio. Each danced with appropriate exuberance and flamboyance, and Ms. Yamamoto should be commended for performing as well as she did on relatively short notice. As was the case in April, however, Ms. Firer was the most naturally vivacious of them all. Whatever the role, her performances look natural, rather than artificially pasted-on. Ms. Gullace, Ms. Firer, and Ms. Yamamoto also did double-duty as Juliet’s ‘Girlfriends’, together with Alice Cao and Clair van Bever.

Aside from the lead dancers, those given most to do are the effervescent Commedia dell’Arte players, who were in virtual constant motion during their performance within the performance. Ms. van Bever, Cameron Auble-Branigan, Ms. Cao, and Edward Urwin repeated their roles as Columbina, Arlecchino and the Inamorati respectively, and Marc St.-Pierre danced Pantalone. As Juliet’s Nurse, Andrea D’Anunzio gave a polished, engaging performance that was considerably improved from previously, as was Mr. Urwin’s Paris, who appeared less bland and showed more character. Jacopo Jannelli reprised his fine performance as Tybalt.

American Repertory Ballet in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Photo © Leighton Chen

American Repertory Ballet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Photo © Leighton Chen

Taking over the roles of Lady and Lord Capulet were Trinette Singleton and Douglas Martin himself. Ms. Singleton, whom I had not seen on stage since her performances with the Joffrey Ballet in New York (and who doesn’t look much changed), delivered a powerful but relatively controlled performance. Mr. Martin has made Lady Capulet’s response to Tybalt’s death more than hysteria and a clear reflection of some relationship with Tybalt that is other than familial. Ms. Singleton demonstrated her inner turmoil beneath the surface, turmoil that exploded when her husband attempted to intervene in her ‘private’ grief. As Lord Capulet approaches his grieving wife, he is forcibly pushed away as she rises from Tybalt’s body. As the husband Capulet, Mr. Martin was an imposing human volcanic mountain, boiling over with frustration and pain as he loses control of his wife and his daughter.

The role of the Duke of Verona in this production is limited – he appears only at the end of the opening scene to respond to the carnage. But Gary Echternacht’s rage and frustration at the continuing violence between the Capulet and Montague houses and the deaths before him, reflected in his bone-curdling silent scream, could be felt in every corner of the theater. His was a brief, but outstanding performance. As Friar Laurence, Ken Samoil delivered a fine, low-key performance that was perfectly appropriate for the role.

What ultimately may be the most significant aspect of Friday’s performance was the audience. The house was packed with people who were there not to see ‘culture,’ or because they were committed to an art form, but simply to be entertained. This was not a New York audience – there was little in the way of overt sophistication (pseudo or otherwise), reverential deference, conspicuous displays of opinion, or sense of entitlement. On the contrary, and except for the children, Friday’s audience seemed similar to descriptions I’ve read of audiences that sit or stand through performances of Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe Theater in London. That is, although there was a smattering of company personnel (teachers; students), dancers’ relatives, and a vocal block of fans of the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, this was largely an audience comprised of ‘ordinary people’, including parents and grandparents escorting children, local dancers (and would-be dancers), and teenagers. Many seemed not to know what to expect, and for them this performance was a special event – a stretch. That they were entertained, and moved, by what they saw was clear, and the standing ovation that greeted the cast and orchestra at the performance’s conclusion was enthusiastic and genuine. As much of a small miracle as the production and performance was, the engaged and enthralled audience was a small miracle as well.