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Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

I am a dancer with Minneapolis based James Sewell Ballet, a small, contemporary ballet company. I also choreograph independently.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Whispering in the Dark

During my recent second visit to New York City in as many months, I had the pleasure of seeing American Ballet Theatre again as their season at the Met wound down. They finished with a bang (or rather, a stab) with “Romeo and Juliet”, choreography by Sir Kenneth MacMillan and music by Sergei Prokofiev. The relationship of choreography to music, steps seemingly dictated by the score, pervades my memory of this performance.

I specifically arranged to see Alessandra Ferri as Juliet, in my mind the quintessential portrayer of loves’ youthful victim. In her forties, her embodiment of the character was complete. Jose Manuel Carreno played Romeo. His youthful bouancy was perfectly rendered, conveyed even in the simplest take off into a run toward his new love or away on an errand of revenge. Their coupling was utterly compatible, the choreography a vehicle for their expression.

Having seen Ferri with Julio Bocca probably fifteen years ago, I had high expectations. I recall that I had standing room tickets and that I sat eventually due to the generousity of tired patrons wanting to go home. This time around I and my friends had seats, albiet in the rafters, among the summering School of American Ballet students.

I sat next to J, my dancer girlfriend of fifteen years. We talked and giggled back and forth as the lights dimmed and the overture started. Like the adolescent girls in front of us, we kept this up throughout the entire performance. Some things will never change, little girls at the ballet being one of them. The Ballet, I am reminded, has the power to transport, to dispell the worries of the day. It turns us all into little girls again, whispering in the dark.

The ballroom scene was choreographically masterful in its simplicity. Very presentational and proper; one couldn’t help but tap out the famous musical refrain on one’s knee. This piece is occassionally played for our morning class grand battements, and I swear on those days I kick higher! This music commands one to dance bigger, higher, and so all the more brilliant of MacMillan to exercise such choreographic restraint. The tension thus created was perfect to accommodate the first meeting of our lovers.

I’m sorry to say I was disappointed in the balcony scene, the famous conclusion to Act I. I’m probably the only person on the planet not enamored by that music, for one thing, though the way it weaves through the ballet as a whole is masterful. This pas de deux seemed somehow too fast, too urgent. (Though Ferri’s leap off the last step toward Carreno was brave and hit just the right unabashed note.) In general there was no time for my eye to absorb the imagery.

The second act, however, was satisfying in the extreme. This was Carreno’s time to shine, along with the other lead men. The swordplay was real and therefore believable. I forgave some unmusical clashes given that these dancers were dealing with actual weapons. Safely above musicality, I always say.

As to musicality, the deaths of Mercuito and Tybalt brillantly represented and followed the score. These death scenes were therefore justified in going on and on, and they did. We followed every bump and stumble, every continuing joke of Mercutio. His music especially rode the line between comedy and tragedy. Tybalt, dying moments later, gets to use the stairs, and to great effect. The role was danced with elegant, aristocratic, upright, earthiness by Sascha Radetsky. One wanted to see him dance more, but we were nontheless satisfied with what he did do, how complete his role seemed. Satisfying too was Lady Capulet’s fierce greiving dance over Tybalt’s body. Stella Abrera channelled Martha Graham in her full-length gown and hood. Again, the music prescribed the dance. There’s something profound and deeply satisfying about movement to chords, which is what this solo mostly is. The curtain falls as she takes him in her arms and desperately attempts to rock him back to life.

Act III is the intimate heart of the piece. Ferri’s embodiment of the character came fully to life as she, ironically, preoccupies herself with death. Here we have the bedchamber pas de deux. Romeo and Juliet’s love is now knowing and complete. Little do they know that this is the last time they will see one another alive. The audience knows, however, marking this scene with bittersweet tension. Romeo flees before the house awakens.

Juliet is left contemplating how she can get out of marriage to Paris, the man her family has arranged for her. She sits on her bed as the music swells, reflecting the passage of time and a thought process. This moment did not work. I love the idea behind it, but in a house as big as the Met, not being able to read the changing emotions upon her face robbed the moment of it’s potency. It would have been more effective for Juliet to crawl backward upon the bed, into the darkness, then emerge, decision made. This decision is the fatal one, the one that sets up the inevitable conclusion. She runs to Friar Laurence who dispenses a magic potion that will cause her to fall into a “death-like sleep”.

Lady Capulet’s grief this time, at the discovery of Juliet’s seemingly dead body, is subdued, numb. This rang true for me; it seems fitting that a mother would initially respond this way. Again, it was in the score. Juliet is buried in the family tomb.

Romeo never receives the message that her death is a ruse. He is stunned by grief and rushes to the tomb disguised as a monk.

There lies Juliet on her back, her little legs pristinely together, her toes pointed, her arms stretched out in a V, palms down. She resembles a slumbering fairy, her dark hair spread around her head and her buttery chiffon dress at rest and also spread. We see the little girl behind the knowing woman. Perhaps we all revert to this state as we enter and return from sleep or death.

Romeo thinks she’s dead, and here we have what is to me the highlight of the production: the dance of death. Romeo heaves Juliets flaccid form into and out of positions they once executed as lovers. Ferri so believably plays dead that I wonder if she dances this particular section with her eyes closed. Carreno is desperate in his masterful partnering, ably handling her while continuing the believability of the drama. He is a beast untamed.

He eventually puts her down. Unconsoled, he drinks a vial of poison and dies. Juliet awakens and discovers his body. She quickly takes in the tragic misunderstanding and, like the youthful lover she is, sees no other option but to stab herself and join him in death. She ends in the archiest of backbends off the side of her gravestone, arcing toward Romeo and the loss of their pure love.

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