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“Passion Lends Them Power” — PNB Dances Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette 
Rosie Gaynor
Posted February 5, 2008


    Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Lucien Postlewaite (Romeo) and principal dancer Noelani Pantastico (Juliette) in Jean-Christophe Maillot's Roméo et Juliette. © Angela Sterling


    The story goes that in 1935 the Bolshoi declared Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet score impossible to dance to. If they could have seen Thursday’s performance of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette at PNB, they would have had to retract that statement. This beautifully danced piece was so suited to the music that in many places the movement seemed to be markings in the score. 

    It’s French, so I expected beauty (got it!), style (got it), abstraction (got it—there are no swords, no potions, no daggers), and moments of weird movement (got them too; the choreography is a somewhat unblended mix of modern and classical). What really blew me away, however, was the total, across-the-boards commitment of the dancers. Commitment to the story, the emotions, the choreography, and the music—that kind of passion makes for an exciting evening. 

    The ballet opens with Friar Lawrence. This is not Shakespeare’s comforting holy man; this is a terrifying figure in severe black who starts the ballet with a silent, agonized, crucified scream, knowing that the tragedy is in part his fault. He moves strangely through the ballet, angst-ridden, too erect, disturbed, accompanied by his two acolytes and yet a figure apart from everyone. Olivier Wevers dances this odd role, and he makes it truly scary. His attention to detail is perfect for this part and makes the Friar all the creepier. One example that will stay with me forever: when he slithers into Juliette’s crypt, his arm aligns exactly with the curve of the cross-shaped light on the wall. In a way, this is Friar Lawrence’s story.  

    Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Lucien Postlewaite (Romeo) and principal dancer Noelani Pantastico (Juliette) in Jean-Christophe Maillot's Roméo et Juliette. © Angela Sterling

    The rest of the characters—those that actually make it into this stripped-down version of the tale—are for the most part spot-on Shakespeare. The nurse is fussy and silly and bawdy. Mercutio is his own “saucy merchant” self, “full of ropery.” The “fiery” Tybalt is the “King of Cats.” The lovely thing is that this all comes through in the dancing—both in the choreography and in the way the dancers dance it. Benvolio and Mercutio dance together a fair amount – teenage boys out on the town – but even when their steps are similar, the quality is different: Mercutio (Jonathan Porretta) brash and bawdy, Benvolio (Benjamin Griffiths) fun-loving and sincere (and bawdy). Maillot does take liberties with the “chaste Rosaline,” however:  we do actually see her, and, uh, she doesn’t look very chaste. 

    Lady Capulet, danced by Louise Nadeau, is a severe and formal matriarch, a sort of blend between opera’s Queen of the Night and, later, Elektra. It’s fun to see this wonderful, sweet-and-delicate-looking dancer get a chance to be so bold and angular.  

    I wouldn’t have minded a little more Roméo in this Roméo et Juliette. What we do see from Lucien Postlewaite, however, is full of energy, convincing, and lovingly, beautifully executed. You never worry with this charming, accomplished dancer whether he can pull it off; you just sit back and get drawn in by his confident, intelligent, cohesive performance.  

    His Juliette gets more dancing and, well, nobody has ever complained of too much Noelani Pantastico. This lovely dancer’s versatility comes into play in this piece more than ever, as her steps run the gamut from classical ballet to modern, her emotions from joy to despair. It is a killer role and, like everything I’ve seen her dance during the past ten years or so, she gives herself to it wholly, finding grace and sense in steps that might otherwise be awkward or silly. She is utterly believable.  

    Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Olivier Wevers (as Friar Laurence, center) with corps de ballet dancers Josh Spell and Jerome Tisserand (l-r) in Jean-Christophe Maillot's Roméo et Juliette. © Angela Sterling

    Believable? Convincing? These aren’t usually the words I look for in writing about dancers. But then, Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette is not solely about the dance. It is strangely like a really good opera, so important is each of the art forms that come together to achieve the total effect. 

    Certainly, the sets play a different role than they usually do in ballet. Four imposing, stark-white, curving walls and a Ziegfeldian ramp make up the set. They move: the ramp rises, changing from street to balcony, and the walls glide into different configurations. It is this movement, I think, that makes these sets by Ernest Pignon-Ernest such an integral part of the drama. The tragedy’s course is already determined: the wheels/walls are already in motion and in spite of Friar Lawrence’s heart-wrenching efforts to stop them, the walls move on. Without the walls, would there be a happier ending?  

    And the lights! Une merveille! They say that good lighting is lighting you don’t notice. I’m not sure that holds true in the world of dance. At any rate, this lighting is definitely noticeable. The designer, Dominique Drillot, is also a sculptor and painter and you can see that in his very effective designs. Tones range from chilling cold to loving warmth. There are beautiful patterns for the church, the orchard, the bedroom, and a unrelenting cross curves across the crypt wall. To get the full effect, sit in the balcony.  

    The “two hours’ traffic of our stage” does not lag. The show provides plenty to think about. Some of the movements are gorgeous. The fight scenes are creative. The fluctuations between duet, trio, groups of four—six—eight—twelve—are unusual and create a kind of kaleidoscope effect. (Kudos to the corps that they can carry it off. That sort of thing can turn into a mess, but the corps was in the zone on Thursday night.) And then there is the quality of Juliet’s duets with Friar Lawrence. In the first duet, for example, she doesn’t really dance with him, nor does she ignore him, as sometimes happens in Balanchine duets. It is more as though she is describing her love and he, by dancing with her, is listening/helping her to describe it. I’ve never seen this quality before.  

    So was the evening perfect? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. While the many hands and palms in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are charming, Maillot’s piece seems obsessed with them and I found it annoying. Parts of Prokofiev’s music are sublime, but the whole is disjointed and choppily repetitive. The lack of transition in his music is repeated in Maillot’s choreography, where the modern movements don’t always flow from or into the more classical. There is a puppet show that seems incorporated just because it is clever and funny. The corps women’s costumes are distracting (are they Greek? flapper dresses? night gowns?) and obscure the dancing. And the ending is horribly, horribly brutal… no Prince, no families coming together…just senseless death and a curtain. But then, that is perhaps the point? 

    So, no, not perfect. But a fine addition to the PNB’s rep (which already has Kent Stowell’s sweeter, pinker, graceful Romeo and Juliet) and a fine addition to the ballet world’s rep of 80+ Romeo and Juliets. I’m thinking it’s time for a new story, though.  

    Roméo et Juliette runs through February 10. Check out the February 9 performance, where Juliette is danced by Bernice Coppietiers of Les ballets de Monte-Carlo. Tickets are available online at or at the PNB box office (206-441-2424). 

    “…passion lends them power…temp’ring extremities with extreme sweet.” –the Chorus, Act II, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

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