As PNB's dancers learn the new ballet (a far less traditional and more starkly contemporary version of the tale than Kent Stowell's "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet," previously in the company's repertory), they must learn a new language of movement and take on a different, fully developed character.
In a gray rehearsal studio on a bright winter afternoon, two Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers are becoming teenagers again. Principal Noelani Pantastico and corps de ballet member James Moore scamper and whirl as if caught in a windstorm of love. To the strains of Sergei Prokofiev’s luscious music, they chase each other, embrace, writhe on the floor and visibly shiver, overwhelmed by the sensation of each other’s touch. They are Romeo and Juliet — or rather, Roméo and Juliette, in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s 1996 version of the ballet that will make its PNB debut this week.
A dancer’s career may encompass many roles — a prince, a swan maiden, a leotard-clad abstraction — but few bring the dramatic challenges of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. As PNB’s dancers learn the new ballet (a far less traditional and more starkly contemporary version of the tale than Kent Stowell’s “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,” previously in the company’s repertory), they must learn a new language of movement and take on a different, fully developed character.
Gaby Baars, visiting from Maillot’s company Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo to stage the ballet, watches Pantastico and Moore closely to assure they adhere to the choreography, and also pays attention to the emotional content of their performance. “Everything a little bit more passionate,” he tells them, adding to Pantastico, “It’s not Noe being Juliette. You are Juliette.”
Later in the week, Pantastico and Moore joined principal Carla Körbes and soloist Lucien Postlewaite (the two couples were originally cast to alternate performances during the ballet’s two-week run, though Körbes had to withdraw near presstime due to injury) to talk about becoming Roméo and Juliette. First, they said, the process involved unlearning the usual forms of ballet movement, to make room for the characters.
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“The thing that was stressed at the very beginning was taking the ballet out of everything, even when you’re walking across the room,” said Pantastico. “We tend to walk on a high demi-point [up on the ball of the foot], and they want us to walk heel-toe. Just doing that is hard.”
“We’re trained to be ballet dancers and walk like a prince,” added Moore. “It’s so different in this ballet.”
Postlewaite, who danced the balcony scene with Pantastico at PNB’s season-opening gala last September, agreed that the turned-in, loose movement felt unnatural at first. “But it’s supposed to look natural so it feels just like an extension of our feelings — not so much that we’re doing choreography, and more that the dancing is a byproduct of what’s going on,” he said. After the gala, he heard a lot of feedback from audiences — “It felt so young and it felt so fresh, the technique wasn’t getting in the way.”
Through this natural movement, the slouchy grace of teenagers began to emerge. And from that movement (and from earlier study of the play) came the emotion, as a seamless package. “The whole process has been trying to work in a way that we’re not just thinking about doing the steps,” said Postlewaite. “The steps are attached to an emotion, they’re attached to a feeling, so when you do the step, you can’t help but feel the emotion.”
The dancers have found different ways to rehearse the acting element of their characters, on a rushed schedule that allows little time to focus on emotion alone. Moore remembered, in a rehearsal with Jonathan Porretta (who plays Mercutio), that the two of them would speak their thoughts aloud, as their characters. “It helped make it a little more real,” he said.
All spoke of the importance of being in the moment, of keeping interactions spontaneous. Bernice Coppieters, the Monte-Carlo dancer who created the role of Juliette and worked with PNB’s dancers this month, instructed them to keep changing their performances, even onstage, to keep it fresh.
“You can’t stage your poses, stage your expressions,” said Postlewaite. “It has to be so natural that if something is different, you can react to that difference.”
In this production, the young lovers aren’t quite as innocent as they’re often played. “Bernice was telling us, ‘Juliette isn’t necessarily 14 in this version,’ ” said Pantastico. “Or maybe she is, but maybe she’s experienced some things already.”
“Juliette is not an innocent sweet girl who has no idea,” said Baars. “She’s someone who knows she is grown up, and she falls in love and she knows what she wants. She’s got some guts, she goes for Romeo and she tells him she wants to sleep with him, and she will kiss him for the first time. It’s not the guy who’s taking over, like normal classical ballets do.”
Postlewaite described his Romeo as “a playboy” before he meets Juliette. “And then, it’s like, ‘I don’t know what love is until I see her.’ “
Like method actors, the dancers said that they sometimes use their own life experiences to help create onstage emotions. But Baars reminded them that such channeling can be perilous, remembering that when the original Roméo at Monte-Carlo would fall in love with someone in real life, “It would be the worst performance. He’d be bouncing about … ” Baars grimaced.
While memories may help to personalize the role, it can’t be too personal — ultimately, the performance has to be true to Maillot’s vision. “To understand what Jean-Christophe wants in his Roméo, the kind of love he wants portrayed, it might not correspond to your way of loving someone,” said Baars. “You can’t just do whatever you want and feel real all the time, because sometimes what you feel is real is not the right way.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org