Sweet tragedy: rehearsing ‘R&J’

James Canfield brings his passionate version of Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed Romeo & Juliet back to the Oregon Ballet Theatre stage

Quick, for the best seats in the house at the ballet: what is the most frequently performed ballet in the world?

The Nutcracker, you say?

That’s correct. But Romeo and Juliet, “America’s front porch ballet,” as former Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal called it at a conference in 1994, is right up there, along with Swan Lake and Giselle.

That conference took place in San Francisco and was connected to the premiere of Helgi Tomasson’s lavish version of R&J for San Francisco Ballet, which was memorable in part for Christopher Stowell’s impudent bravura performance as Mercutio, several years before Stowell became artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

At the conference we explored many renditions of the ballet, some set to Tchaikovsky (Kent Stowell’s for Pacific Northwest Ballet) one set to Delius (Antony Tudor’s, on film, and I’d kill to see it restored), most of them set to Sergei Prokofiev, including Toni Pimble’s for the Eugene Ballet and James Canfield’s passionate and emotionally satisfying take on Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers for Oregon Ballet Theatre, which the company is reviving this weekend and next, beginning at 7:30 pm Saturday at Keller Auditorium.

James Canfield (left) rehearses Peter Franc as Romeo and Xuan Cheng as Juliet. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

James Canfield (left) rehearses Peter Franc as Romeo and Xuan Cheng as Juliet. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

All of the ballets listed above, when done in traditional form, contain spectacle, pageantry, and, with the possible exception of The Nutcracker, great ballerina roles. Romeo and Juliet has a number of terrific male roles as well, particularly that trio of Veronese hooligans—Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio; and, like Shakespeare’s play, some character parts for comic relief. The marketplace scenes give the corps de ballet opportunities to dance, and to act.  Like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, the story is familiar, and so is the music, which makes for good box office.

In short, when done well, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet provides entertainment and catharsis for the audience and many opportunities for the dancers to hone their technical and dramatic skills. A month or so ago I watched Canfield coaching the two Juliets, Xuan Cheng and Ansa DeGuchi; the two Lady Capulets, Candace Bouchard and Eva Burton; and the two Nurses, Katherine Monogue and Makino Hildestad, in one of my favorite scenes in the ballet.

Xuan Cheng in rehearsal as Juliet for Canfield's ballet. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Xuan Cheng in rehearsal as Juliet for Canfield’s ballet. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Patiently, meticulously, Canfield—he was OBT’s founding artistic director, who parted ways with the company in 2003 and was replaced by Stowell, who in turn made way for current a.d. Kevin Irving—showed them how to engage each other in a wordless dialogue. Lady C informs her daughter she is now a woman, and presents her with her first ball gown (one of David Heuvel’s glorious costumes; I was delighted to see it in the studio and will be even more delighted to see onstage, as I will be to enjoy revisiting Gene Dent’s set). Juliet accepts the gown with wonder, holding it up to her adolescent breasts. The Nurse realizes her charge is growing up and won’t need her much longer. In much of Canfield’s choreography, Shakespeare’s poetry is audible, particularly here, in the ballroom, in the balcony and bedroom pas de deux.

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This is not true of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, a chic, reductive rendering of the ballet that is as different from Canfield’s (and most other versions) as chalk from cheese. Maillot, the artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, premiered his R&J in 1996 and Pacific Northwest Ballet first performed it in 2008. I went to Seattle to see it a second time, in revival, a couple of weeks ago. When PBD first performed it eight years ago, I found Maillot’s version extremely interesting, visually sophisticated, beautifully danced, and somewhat cold. What it and Canfield’s ballet have in common is Prokofiev’s score and the young lovers, more at the mercy of the adult world than Shakespeare’s destiny.

The production itself remains a monument to French chic, with some Frank Lloyd Wright thrown in.  The set, by French painter and installation artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest, has the architectural sweep of the interior of New York’s Guggenheim Museum (there is a ramp, but no balcony).  Costumes by Jérôme Kaplan have the chic look of a 1930s Vogue perfume ad, especially Lady Capulet’s floor-length black sheath, slit to the waist on both sides. Dominique Drillot’s lights provide equally stylish illumination of the action. There is no suggestion of Verona, not a hint of Renaissance Italy, and there are no swords. This is a twentieth century update of what is, after all, a twentieth century story ballet: Prokofiev composed the music in 1935.

The traditional marketplace scenes are minimized in Maillot’s version and include a puppet show foretelling the tragedy to come in the “street” scene, as it’s called, that follows the intermission. All the corps de ballet has to do here is sit and watch it. And yes, it reminded me of the play within a play in Hamlet. As did the character of Friar Laurence.

Candace Bouchard and Jordan Kindell rehearse their roles as Lady Capulet and Tybalt in Canfield's "R&J" for OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Candace Bouchard and Jordan Kindell rehearse their roles as Lady Capulet and Tybalt in Canfield’s “R&J” for OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Maillot removes the political and social context of feuding families and arranged marriages, but he makes a very strong statement about the political role of the Catholic Church.  The ballet begins with Friar Laurence – costumed in black tights, making him look like either Hamlet or a Jesuit priest, or both – flanked by two acolytes, standing on stage arms outstretched, as if he were hanging on a cross, as Prokofiev’s doom-filled overture plays.  Only a French choreographer, it seems to me, would convert Shakespeare’s well-meaning Franciscan friar into a manipulative Jesuit priest, who appears in virtually every scene, including Juliet’s bedroom, making him, rather than the young lovers, the linchpin of the ballet.

The dancing was excellent: this is, after all, PNB, a major American company. Corps member Miles Pertl did well as the Friar, his exceptionally long limbs at times making him look like an extremely poisonous spider; and Noelani Pantastico, who originated Juliette eight years ago, danced with the same skill and commitment, whether barefoot in the balcony and bedroom scenes, or on pointe in the ballroom. James Moore danced an impetuous, immature Romeo, and his and Pantastico’s performance in the bedroom scene was one of very few that touched me emotionally. Jonathan Poretta, whose explosive dancing is well-known to the Portland audience (he was a guest artist at OBT during Christopher Stowell’s tenure as artistic director), did not disappoint as Mercutio; and Seth Orza was a highly provocative Tybalt. As Juliette’s bumbling nurse, Margaret Mullin (dancing in pointe shoes and costumed in flounces, no less) did not cut a nurturing figure, making her more like the less-than-maternal Lady Capulet, here performed dispassionately by Laura Tisserand. There is no Lord Capulet in this version.

Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette is a curious blend of realism and artifice, the slick production aside. Bare feet in the balcony and bedroom pas de deux make much more sense than pointe shoes; when Romeo, fresh from his unwilling slaying of Tybalt, makes his entry into Juliette’s bedroom, she runs to him and pounds on him with her fists in a natural response to the loss of her cousin.

But in the end, this version is an intellectual exercise.  Despite the excellence of the dancing and the PNB orchestra’s performance of Prokofiev’s score, it lacks both poetry and pageantry. I admire it, I respect it, but I left the theater feeling the same way I did when I entered it. That has never been the case when I’ve seen Canfield’s, and I don’t expect it to be this time around, either.

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All performances of Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet will be accompanied by the OBT orchestra under the baton of music director Niel de Ponte. Casting, schedule, and ticket information are here.

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