How Not to Tell a Story

by Leigh Witchel

It was a big deal that The Joffrey Ballet came back to its former home city for an infrequent visit, back to Lincoln Center and with a production of “Romeo & Juliet.” Thirty years ago, the company presented the Cranko version while across the plaza American Ballet Theatre acquired MacMillan’s. In the 80’s, The Joffrey and ABT were closer in profile; for a few years at its strongest, The Joffrey threatened to pull ahead. The company overreached financially and decamped to Chicago, but that’s ancient history – except perhaps among aging critics.

The Joffrey has returned to the same stage, only with a different version of “Romeo & Juliet,” Choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor with dramaturgy by Willem Bruls. It was contemporary, streamlined, and nonsensical.

Rule one of story ballets: Tell the damn story. This version didn’t. Of all the plots in ballet, “Romeo & Juliet” is the slow lob over the plate. Almost everyone in the audience knows it already; you can deviate slightly or omit things and people will still fill in the blanks. Pastor used the Prokofiev score, which brooks little deviation from its libretto. There were the usual street scenes, balls and duets. The basics were there, more or less: lovers, parents, friends, friars. There was no Rosaline, no nurse and Paris didn’t show up until Act 3, but others have made equivalent tweaks.

The concept went south when Pastor and Bruls changed the plot in ways they didn’t bother to fully show. According to the synopsis, the three acts of the ballet take place in the 20th century, only decades apart. Yet this happened the same cast of characters, unaged. There’s no reason that idea couldn’t work; it’s a potent metaphor for the persistence of violence. But you’d have to make that kind of time travel not only clear, but part of the plot. How did it come to be, this Brigadoon on the Tiber? What does it feel like for the townspeople? There was none of that. It was the same plot with a different backdrop and different trim on the costumes. A potentially radical idea was nothing more than window dressing.

Several narrative decisions invoked the Law of Unintended Consequences. If the ballet happens in a time when people didn’t usually carry a knife or sword, what to do about fights, duels and weapons? This staging used mostly bare hands – which meant the fights looked unchoreographed. When someone had to die, knives suddenly appeared. Capulet took a knife from inside his jacket (where one always keeps a large dagger handy) and handed it to Tybalt to stab Mercutio. It was so incongruous as to be ridiculous.

The confusion wasn’t just décor. You couldn’t tell who was who, and the minimal characterization didn’t help. Mercutio got a solo entry before Romeo, so you thought he was Romeo. Capulet seemed to be Tybalt. Juliet’s first entrance was before the music Prokofiev wrote for her. Friar Lawrence (pinch-hitting for Escalus, who was not in this version) imagined the cataclysms of the last century on the sour crashing chords that signify tragedy. The cast collapsed to the floor and there was Juliet. At least we could recognize her. Pastor’s blocking was usually less clear. Romeo first saw Juliet in a crowd of movement and was easy to miss.

Juliet’s plotline worked against her. One of the ways to make the sense out of Juliet when she can’t speak is to keep her isolated. Here, she had two friends and was out on the street in contact with Romeo at times when she’d usually be sequestered by her family. Why was she making such dangerous plans involving potions?

If dramaturgy was a blunt instrument, so was vocabulary. Pastor’s free, contemporary steps didn’t have enough differentiation to be eloquent. Torsos curled, arms reached perpendicular to the floor, fists shook, and this limited palette had to serve for both “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” and “A plague on both your houses!”

Christine Rocas and Rory Hohenstein in “Romeo & Juliet.” Photo © Cheryl Mann.

The lovers’ two big duets were unmemorable. Juliet’s balcony was a small mirrored chamber that raised and lowered like an elevator, and her dance with Romeo didn’t have an indelible image among the lifts and balances. The ending was diluted; the crowd returned and the two went off anonymously to the sides.

The bedroom scene happened without intermission after the killing of Tybalt. There was some attempt to do more than dance; Romeo mimed blood on his hands to Juliet and she attempted to wipe it off. Yet at the end, it felt less like a pas de deux and more like two solos, and when it was done, Romeo just exited.

The scenes with Friar Lawrence and the poison were so telescoped that they made even less sense than usual. Worse, the friar was part of the crowd of mourners in the tomb and somehow didn’t see Romeo when they were next to one another. It didn’t look like fate, it looked like they were dense. In order to commit suicide, Romeo had to reach into his rucksack to find a knife conveniently laying at the top. You felt like Oscar Wilde laughing at the death of Little Nell.

It’s not fair to judge the dancers by this. Both Rory Hohenstein and Christine Rocas would have been better in a better version. Fabrice Calmels was the only dancer who came out ahead as Capulet: a meaty dancing part in this production. He was riveting, but did it by turning the role into Death from “The Green Table.” He had the beginning of the thundering dance at the ball to himself, striding in all black to the center of the stage and vacuuming up all the matter around him through personal magnetism. It made no sense, but it was effective.

It’s not a sin against posterity to trade the Cranko “Romeo and Juliet” for this production. The Joffrey doesn’t have the duty of custodianship it has to Robert Joffrey – yet it had no compunction dumping Joffrey’s version of “The Nutcracker” – there is no Joffrey any longer at The Joffrey. Here, the company traded a solid if shopworn “Romeo” for a newer and flimsy one. And the results were the best argument against it.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Romeo & Juliet” – The Joffrey Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
March 29, 2017

Cover:  The Joffrey Ballet in “Romeo & Juliet.” Photo  © Cheryl Mann.

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