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Wherefore Art My Choreographer?

ROMEO AND JULIET Boston Ballet At the Wang Center Through November 2

By Christiana Briggs, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Under new artistic director AnnaMarie Holmes, the Boston Ballet opens its 34th season with an old favorite, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, dedicated to the memory of Boston Ballet dancer Heidi Guenther, who passed away this summer. Romeo is dazzling, Juliet the epitome of youthful innocence, and the choreography... all but ruins the production.

If audiences cringed at Choo San Goh's choreography for the 1984 production of Romeo and Juliet, they should cringe no less at the new version presented by resident choreographer Daniel Pelzig. Since arriving at the Ballet in 1995, Pelzig has created several remarkable and highly entertaining pieces for the company. However, his forte lies in the modern and whimsical, not the classical and romantic, as shown only too well in the dull and uninspiring choreography of this R&J.

The corps de ballet, while quite consistent in technique and cohesiveness, is forced to repeat the same patterns and steps throughout the entire ballet. The pas de deux in the balcony scene, though beautifully executed, lacks emotional resonance. It is immediately apparent when Pelzig felt at ease versus when he strained to create a moment or a scene. In the group dances featuring Romeo and his kinsman and friends Benvolio and Mercutio, the variations for the men are forced and shallow. It is only when the men are character-acting that the steps and movements become lively.

Pelzig's greatest success is in the role of Mercutio, brilliantly performed by Robert Wallace, because it succeeds in incorporating humorous acting with a healthy dose of solid ballet--something that seems missing everywhere else. Wallace is a delight to watch as he dances drunk, pirouettes, and step-dances off a stone bench; one wishes he were given the opportunity to dance the role of Romeo.

It seems as though Pelzig choreographed the ballet first and then tried to add the Prokofiev score piecemeal to the different scenes; on several occasions, the music and steps clash instead of blending together. During one of the most sweeping and dynamic moments in the music, Juliet stands unmoving, simply staring out the window. During the Capulets' ballroom scene, against the darkly throbbing beat maintained by the brass, the dancers go through a ridiculous melange of half-flamenco, half karate-chop arm movements, shattering the image created by the music.

To make matters worse, the orchestra--at least on opening night--sounds about as professional as a high school band. Squeaky horns and missed notes grate on the ear, and the entire orchestra seems disjointed and badly synchronized: throughout the ballet, one can hear different sections starting and stopping where the transitions should have been smooth. Though easily overlooked, a good pit orchestra is absolutely essential to a good ballet, because the music truly is half the performance. A dancer draws energy from the music; when it's off, so is the magic.

Despite the defects of choreography and orchestra, the lead dancers manage to partly salvage the ballet. As the starcrossed lovers, Patrick Armand and Pollyana Ribeiro are, in a word, stunning. Their remarkable artistry and faultless technique make the most out of their roles, though ultimately neither can overcome the flawed choreography. Ribeiro, usually "all technique," here proves that she, too, can turn simple steps into flowing movements as she lets her character's emotions make her image softer and more beautiful. In her interactions with the Nurse, and in the crucial solo in which she wavers over whether or not to drink the sleeping potion, Ribeiro both looks and acts like a very young and bewildered girl in love. Armand is perfection as the impetuous, infatuated lover, sustaining five and six pirouettes ending with a balance, landing smoothly from each high jump, and completing every moment of high emotion--even flinging off his shirt and falling into bed--with exquisite grace.

Reagan Messer, as Tybalt, skillfully portrays the dark vengefulness of the character through sharp jumps and cold, forbidding demeanour. A frigid, severe expression and haughtily up-tilted nose make soloist Nadia Thompson a perfect Lady Capulet, though there is no conceivable reason why her character should be on pointe. Oddly enough, Pelzig throws in a hint of incest between Tybalt and Lady Capulet--maybe it's just the acting, but they certainly seem a little too uncomfortably close throughout the ballet.

Zach Hench's long line and clean technique make the character of Benvolio, Romeo's cousin, also worth watching.

The costumes are for the most part unremarkable, the dull colors relieved only by the striking black, red, and purple garb of the Capulets. The scenery, however, by artist Alain Vaes, is breathtaking. The fair city of Verona comes alive in all its luxurious beauty, filled with graceful archways and lovely fountains. The interior of the Capulet home is dominated, with striking appropriateness, by a large mural of the tumultuous history of the family. Plenty of luminous stars create a suitably romantic atmosphere for the balcony scene, forming a stark contrast to the gloomy, eerily bare family crypt where the drama closes.

It is in this place of rest, in fact, that the ballet reaches its emotional peak. In this production, there is no scene of reconciliation between the Capulets and Montagues after the deaths of their children. Instead, we end with collapse of Romeo and Juliet, in a passionate embrace, in front of the tomb--an image that's striking in its very simplicity, and that comes closest to capturing the full power of Shakespeare's play.Boston BalletArtistry and technical finesse make PATRICK ARMAND and POLLYANA RIBEIRO an ideal Romeo and Juliet.

To make matters worse, the orchestra--at least on opening night--sounds about as professional as a high school band. Squeaky horns and missed notes grate on the ear, and the entire orchestra seems disjointed and badly synchronized: throughout the ballet, one can hear different sections starting and stopping where the transitions should have been smooth. Though easily overlooked, a good pit orchestra is absolutely essential to a good ballet, because the music truly is half the performance. A dancer draws energy from the music; when it's off, so is the magic.

Despite the defects of choreography and orchestra, the lead dancers manage to partly salvage the ballet. As the starcrossed lovers, Patrick Armand and Pollyana Ribeiro are, in a word, stunning. Their remarkable artistry and faultless technique make the most out of their roles, though ultimately neither can overcome the flawed choreography. Ribeiro, usually "all technique," here proves that she, too, can turn simple steps into flowing movements as she lets her character's emotions make her image softer and more beautiful. In her interactions with the Nurse, and in the crucial solo in which she wavers over whether or not to drink the sleeping potion, Ribeiro both looks and acts like a very young and bewildered girl in love. Armand is perfection as the impetuous, infatuated lover, sustaining five and six pirouettes ending with a balance, landing smoothly from each high jump, and completing every moment of high emotion--even flinging off his shirt and falling into bed--with exquisite grace.

Reagan Messer, as Tybalt, skillfully portrays the dark vengefulness of the character through sharp jumps and cold, forbidding demeanour. A frigid, severe expression and haughtily up-tilted nose make soloist Nadia Thompson a perfect Lady Capulet, though there is no conceivable reason why her character should be on pointe. Oddly enough, Pelzig throws in a hint of incest between Tybalt and Lady Capulet--maybe it's just the acting, but they certainly seem a little too uncomfortably close throughout the ballet.

Zach Hench's long line and clean technique make the character of Benvolio, Romeo's cousin, also worth watching.

The costumes are for the most part unremarkable, the dull colors relieved only by the striking black, red, and purple garb of the Capulets. The scenery, however, by artist Alain Vaes, is breathtaking. The fair city of Verona comes alive in all its luxurious beauty, filled with graceful archways and lovely fountains. The interior of the Capulet home is dominated, with striking appropriateness, by a large mural of the tumultuous history of the family. Plenty of luminous stars create a suitably romantic atmosphere for the balcony scene, forming a stark contrast to the gloomy, eerily bare family crypt where the drama closes.

It is in this place of rest, in fact, that the ballet reaches its emotional peak. In this production, there is no scene of reconciliation between the Capulets and Montagues after the deaths of their children. Instead, we end with collapse of Romeo and Juliet, in a passionate embrace, in front of the tomb--an image that's striking in its very simplicity, and that comes closest to capturing the full power of Shakespeare's play.Boston BalletArtistry and technical finesse make PATRICK ARMAND and POLLYANA RIBEIRO an ideal Romeo and Juliet.

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