Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Teaching the torches to burn bright

Nelson Madrigal and Larissa Ponomarenko leave the balcony behind. (Photos by Gene Schiavone.)

What the New Rep and the A.R.T. couldn't do, Boston Ballet has done triumphantly: they've brought Romeo and Juliet to Boston, in a production that includes not a word of Shakespeare, but somehow conveys his essence via Prokofiev's classic score, John Cranko's nearly-as-celebrated choreography, a rich, perceptive design from the National Ballet of Canada, and an all-but-ideal opening-night cast. The results, it's true, boasted no innovative insights into the tragic romance; no shocking new light was thrown on the Bard's star-crossed lovers. What transpired instead was the best kind of traditional reading: one informed by the accumulated knowledge of the past, staged perceptively and performed exquisitely. What was most striking, in fact, was how the performance functioned as well as drama as it did as dance. After such entertaining bagatelles as La Sylphide, Romeo and Juliet was a welcome reminder of the depth a 'story ballet' can really achieve; shorn of its swan-maidens and wicked witches, the form, it turns out, is up to the challenge of genuine tragedy.

Of course the ballet's triumph is largely due to Prokofiev's score, which rivals in its musical integrity Stravinsky's Firebird and Rite of Spring. Perhaps it's too bad Boston Ballet isn't using the composer's original version (Mark Morris is rumored to be planning a new production to it), but Cranko's insightful choreography is certainly worth preserving on its own, and he perforce worked from the 1940 revision (which finally silenced Prokofiev's state critics and brought the work success). Even in this reworking, however, it's clear how radically Prokofiev departed from the tradition of sweet divertissements favored by Tchaikovsky: if you're looking for an adorable pas de cinq or "tea" followed by "coffee," forget it; Prokofiev hews closely to Shakespeare's drama, and Cranko follows in his toe shoes, as it were. Indeed, it takes awhile for any pure dance to break out of Cranko's subtly rendered pageant; even the famous "Dance of the Knights," Prokofiev's grim accompaniment to the Capulets' masque, here is rendered as a kind of a swaying parade.

But don't worry, Cranko's just saving it up for his eponymous lovers, whom he graces with one inventive pas de deux after another - in which deep back bends and astonishing over-the-shoulder lifts underline the fact that these two are literally head-over-heels. The balcony scene - in which Romeo, thankfully, draws Juliet down to the dance floor - was pure rapture; Larissa Ponomarenko was in luminous form, and was partnered with sympathetic passion by Nelson Madrigal. Madrigal was less convincing in a trio with Mercutio (Reyneris Reyes) and Benvolio (Gabor Kapin ) - in which none had quite the lift to pull off a series of triple spins - but was elsewhere the perfect Romeo, easily shifting from melancholy to romantic transport and back.

The corps looked just as good, in a supple series of groupings that, like so much of the evening, toed a fine line between drama and dance. One sunny highlight was the towering Bo Busby's joie de vivre as the Carnival King(at left) - which was more than matched in dark intensity by Yury Yanowsky's brutal turn as Tybalt; indeed, Yanowsky probably delivered one of the strongest dramatic performances I've ever seen from a dancer (its only recent rival would be Kathleen Breen Combes's imperious performance in Giselle). Praise should also be showered on Susan Benson's versatile production design (and opulent costumes, which matched perfectly the autumnal colors of the set) and particularly Christopher Dennis' stunning lighting - which accurately conjured both night and noon, and hinted at the fragile atmosphere of such late nineteenth-century painters as Alma-Tadema. Indeed, the design was successfully poised between a number of cultural touchstones, somehow honoring the Italian landscape, the British visual tradition, and even the Slavic foundation of Prokofiev's score. This was one case in which design and dance partnered one another impeccably, with the happy (or perhaps unhappy!) result being a closer evocation of the Shakespeare's haunted, doomy mood than I've ever seen in a conventional stage version. This is a production not simply for balletomanes, but for bardolators as well.

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