The Kaye Theater at Hunter College, New York, NY; September 11, 2014
When I come home from a ballet performance babbling, to myself and anyone in earshot, about this or that aspect of it, it’s usually because I found the performance to be either surprisingly bad, or unexpectedly good. After attending the revival of Francis Patrelle’s “Romeo and Juliet”, I babbled incessantly, and positively. Though not without flaws, the ballet, performed by his company, Dances Patrelle, is very good, and well worth seeing.Dances Patrelle has been around a long time. This run marks the company’s 25th Anniversary season, and Mr. Patrelle’s “Romeo and Juliet” is older than that, having initially been presented by the Berkshire Ballet in 1982. I have not had the opportunity to see the company or any of Mr. Patrelle’s choreography previously, but based on this piece, that has been my loss.
I concede that I’m predisposed to liking productions of “Romeo and Juliet” and the addictive roller-coaster ride the story provides – and when it’s absent from a company’s repertoire for more than a year I suffer withdrawal pains. It’s a supremely emotional tragedy, with supremely appealing characters. Perhaps in part for that reason, I’ve found that most presentations – stage or screen, theater or ballet – successfully do what’s necessary to play with an audience’s heart and bring it to tears. And then there are productions that give the story a different look or accent, and that add a measure of intelligence to the ‘standard’ emotional turbulence. Add Mr. Patrelle’s “Romeo and Juliet” to this list.
Dances Patrelle is essentially a ‘chamber’ ballet company, as I suspect the Berkshire Ballet was in 1982. So necessarily this is not a majestic production with the bells and whistles of those by the ‘major’ companies such as Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 production for The Royal Ballet (now also in the repertory of American Ballet Theatre) or Rudolph Nureyev’s 1977 version for the then London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet, and subsequently revised for La Scala and the Paris Opera). Nor does it have the elegant simplicity of John Neumeier’s 1971 production for Frankfurt Ballet, which I saw performed by the Royal Danish Ballet.
But because it’s physically ‘smaller’ doesn’t mean that it has a smaller impact. Indeed, in many ways, this production filled the Kaye Theater stage, and appeared larger than it is. Everything is there. And although Mr. Patrelle’s ideas are sometimes off-putting, they made me think, and more often than not they won me over.
The ballet opens with plague victims and street urchins roaming the town. While this is a fair application of Shakespeare and appropriately depictive of the multi-faceted toxic atmosphere, political as well as plague-driven, that was reportedly pervasive among the Italian city-states in the sixteenth century (…and before…and after), the use of a these people in tattered rags acting as a combination Greek Chorus, depiction of the ‘Fates’, and representative of the ‘real’ downtrodden common people (as opposed to the Capulet and Montague nobility) is something that I initially rebelled against. But Mr. Patrelle uses this framework consistently and intelligently throughout the piece: the Fates/Plagues/Urchins/Chorus repeatedly foretell – or actively participate in – the tragedy to come, from the first minute until the last. For instance, several are listed as surrogate, ‘phantom’, lead characters who live and die as predicted in a shadow world and at times interfere with the ‘real’ players like unwanted wind gusts. More concretely, several act as the vagabonds who intercept and then kill Friar John, Friar Lawrence’s ‘altar boy’/messenger whose inability to deliver the message to Romeo that Juliet’s death is ‘temporary’ is the final ingredient that eventually results in the lovers’ deaths (a critical development in the play that the MacMillan version visually omits).
It’s not all good. I found some of Mr. Patrelle’s choices to be misplaced or worse. Some characters’ relationships are unclear – for example, is Rosaline Escalus’ daughter or significant other, a member of the Capulet clan, or Mercutio’s main squeeze? The fight scenes (except for that between Tybalt and Mercutio, and then Romeo) looks stylized and artificial, though I greatly enjoyed the Capulet/Montague women using bread and food scraps as weapons, and there are too many tours en l’air at inappropriate times that some of the men had difficulty with. The tempo of the taped music, which sounded choppy to my ear, was also slowed to a relative crawl. And I may never forgive Mr. Patrelle for inserting Paris into the wedding-morning dance in Juliet’s bedchamber, joining Juliet’s ‘friends’ while his bride-to-be lies ‘dead’ on her bed. But that there are some unfortunate choices serves only to emphasize that he takes chances which largely work.
From the first narrative scene, in which Romeo flirts with Rosaline, it’s clear that Mr. Patrelle’s vision of her (aside from the lack of relationship clarity described above) is more than the simple object of attraction that she is in many productions. Here she’s a spirited young woman who is a significant dancing character in the production. And Therese Wendler’s vivacious portrayal was top notch – she could easily have stolen the performance had not the leads and supporting characters been as strong as they were.
As his Romeo and Juliet, Mr. Patrelle invited back two dancers who, as students, had danced in his “Yorkville Nutcracker” (an Upper East Side neighborhood staple) and who are now members of the Los Angeles Ballet: Alexander Castillo and Chloe Sherman. Ms. Sherman is a delicate dancer with a sweet stage persona who nevertheless brought an aura of feisty innocence to her role; Mr. Castillo made a dashing, youthful Romeo. The choreography for the couple is gentler than in other versions, but no less passionate, and both dancers demonstrated facility with it.
More importantly, the pair established their compatibility and stage chemistry early on, and made their romance believable. From the moment Romeo spies Juliet during the inventively choreographed Capulet masked ball, through the ‘balcony scene’ (which takes place in the town square and ends with Romeo, on a ‘bridge’ above the square longingly watching as Juliet runs off), to the fight in which Romeo kills Tybalt (which Juliet watches in horror, and then ‘forgives’ Romeo – an essential predicate to his presence in her bedroom in the next scene, and another ingredient omitted in the MacMillan version), to their last moments together in her bedroom, this is a couple that an audience becomes involved with and roots for, knowing full well the tragedy that lies ahead.
Mr. Patrelle’s concept of the Nurse, here portrayed by Julie Voshell, is a more dominant (and randy) character than I’ve seen in other productions, and her gross behavior is almost too much. But here the Nurse is more significant than a character who provides comic relief, bawdy or otherwise. In addition to being Juliet’s surrogate mother and confidante, this Nurse is a facilitator, a co-conspirator in Juliet’s romance with, marriage to, and bedding of Romeo, and Ms. Voshell did a fine job of seeming to take vicarious pleasure in Juliet and Romeo’s excellent adventure.
Mercutio is more of a rogue in this version than some others, but Matthew Dibble executed his role with appropriate zest. Grant Dettling’s Tybalt was somewhat vacuous, but the choreographed battle with Mercutio was well done, and here Tybalt’s murder of the unarmed Mercutio is clearly intentional, and appropriately triggers Romeo’s response. Lord and Lady Capulet, played by John Mark Owen and Heather Hawk, are finely drawn. As portrayed in this version, they’re not exactly Verona’s fun couple. Lord Capulet is a troubled, nasty, Tybalt of a husband and father, who slaps both his wife and daughter (Lord Capulet in Peter Martins’ version has nothing on this guy); and Lady Capulet gives as good as she gets. One can see where Juliet gets her feistiness.
And the piece is filled with ‘secondary’ characters who do very fine work as well. Tom Banasiack’s Friar Lawrence was less of a cardboard character here (the wedding scene, for example, is lengthier and more detailed than in other productions I’ve seen) and he handled the additional responsibility well, as did young Finn Dugan as Friar John (doubling as one of the ‘phantom’ leads). Benvolio, Petrucchio, and Paris were ardently portrayed by Josh Christopher, Mathew Berenbaum, and Morgan Stinnett respectively, and Daniel Roberts was an assertive Escalus. The Capulet and Montague women kept the piece moving, and Claire Mazza and Rebecca South-Woods stood out as lead ‘plague’ dancers. The children’s roles (primarily street urchins) were filled by students from Ballet Academy East (with which Dances Patrelle has a close relationship), The Ballet Hispanico School, and Scarsdale Ballet Studio.
The ballet ends with less of a bang than usual, but more of a message. Instead of witnessing Juliet’s and Romeo’s deaths in heart-wrenching detail, here, more consistent with the play, the two families return to the tomb, discover the deaths, and appear to patch up their differences in their sorrow…except for the surviving scions, who one can see will continue the feud between the families, and presumably the further tragedies that will result. It’s an intelligent end to an intelligent version of the story, which at some point I hope to see again.