SEATTLE — Some things never change in old Verona, no matter which "Romeo and Juliet" ballet you're seeing. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio inevitably dance in the marketplace with a trio of anonymous doxies (listed as "whores" at American Ballet Theatre, "Gypsies" at the Joffrey, "peasant women" at Pacific Northwest Ballet). Juliet unfailingly wears toe shoes to bed on her wedding night. Paris is almost invariably a blond ninny.
None of this, of course, has much to do with Shakespeare--but it may have a lot to do with building a regional dance company's reputation at a time when the road to health is paved with good recensions: slightly novel and very expensive retellings that, at bottom, are essentially the same.
Introduced in the Seattle Center Opera House earlier this month, Pacific Northwest Ballet's new full-evening, $500,000 "Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet" is the latest attempt by an American company to buy institutional respectability through an elephantine project with a familiar, salable title.
Like the upcoming Joffrey Ballet "Nutcracker," San Francisco Ballet "Swan Lake" and New York City Ballet "Sleeping Beauty," this problematic production-ballet reflects the growing conservatism in U.S. dance management, the shift from a creative, contemporary stance towards reliance on nostalgic me-too spectacle a la Russe .
Of course, choreographer Kent Stowell is no stranger to this trend. His Pacific Northwest Ballet "Nutcracker" in 1983, and the film version of it last year (Carroll Ballard's "Nutcracker: The Motion Picture"), each achieved international notoriety less through choreography or dancing than through the eccentric, overbearing designs by Maurice Sendak. Underneath the fancy packaging: the same stale sugarplum that's resold each Christmas in junior high school auditoriums and highfalutin culture palaces from coast to coast.
Just as Sendak dominated Stowell's "Nutcracker," so Ming Cho Lee overshadows "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet." Indeed, Lee's highly mobile, High Renaissance towers, arches, balcony, bridge, facades, frescoes, tapestries and chandeliers provide the most inventive and purposeful movement in the entire ballet.
Right from the beginning, when the population of Verona wanders beneath a low, wide portico and suddenly the front set of arches ascends--leaving an open courtyard for the first confrontation between the Montagues and Capulets--Lee permits nearly limitless cinematic fluidity in the staging. Some scenes are tightly enclosed by walls and towers; others flow freely in unobstructed space.
As in Shakespeare's own theater, action and reaction can occur simultaneously on different floor-levels: While Tybalt's and Mercutio's bodies are carried out of the courtyard, for instance, Juliet learns of the killings on an elevated walkway. Moreover, the symmetrical, linear formality of the scenery is perfectly in keeping with the stylistic priorities of classical ballet.
However, the biggest novelty of Stowell's version isn't scenic but musical. "In keeping with the policy of making each full-length uniquely identifiable as a PNB ballet," he has said, "I decided against using the Prokofiev score." Instead, Stowell turned to Tchaikovsky--not, mind you, to Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" fantasy overture, but to a patchwork of symphony and suite excerpts, tone poems (including "Hamlet"), other overtures, plus a number of vocal works.
Stewart Kershaw and Raymond Wilson have assembled the pieces with enormous tact and Kershaw draws sumptuous playing from the ad hoc company orchestra, but the result is a sham. Not only is the musical rhetoric, the way people and events are characterized, utterly different from Tchaikovsky's own theater scores (and markedly inferior to them), but the accompaniment seldom provides more than a general mood-wash for mime scenes staged in the most doggedly literal manner you could imagine.
A freer, more lyrical and primarily dance-oriented "Romeo and Juliet" might succeed with this collage score. Certainly, the international repertory is full of Tchaikovsky story ballets that Tchaikovsky never composed (John Cranko's "Onegin" for starters). But Stowell's frequent, arbitrary shifts from mime to dance, from an emotional/narrative context to formal choreography, from one state of feeling to another are seldom matched by any corresponding change in the music. It just flows on.
The effect is like playing a record album while you project silent home movies--and it undercuts even the best performances by the attractive, well-trained company.