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Dance review: Bare-bones ‘Romeo’ captures spirit of Shakespeare’s tragedy

Swiss ballet troupe opens season at Jacob’s Pillow

Friday, June 24, 2011
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‘Romeo and Juliet’

Performed by Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève

WHERE: Jacob’s Pillow, Route 20, Becket, Mass.

WHEN: 8 tonight, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

MORE INFO: 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org

— Many choreographers, regardless of capabilities, test their talents on “Romeo and Juliet.” And why wouldn’t they? Few love stories can match it for passion, both violent and romantic.

And then there is that defining score by Prokofiev, which enriches its highs and lows by commanding every scene with its swing between delicacy and force.

Though “Romeo and Juliet” holds the keys to great theater in dance, not every choreographer can serve the story and the music well. Happily, Joelle Bouvier has succeeded in the version she created for Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève.

The Swiss company opened Jacob’s Pillow 79th season this week with the U.S. premiere of this contemporary rendering. Stripped down to its bare essentials, this “Romeo and Juliet” held sway.

Without the trappings of sets and costumes, the hearts of the lovers and the damaging effects of their feuding families took center stage. The juxtaposition of love and hate was magnified and so too was the effect on the audience.

Musical liberties

Of course, a purist might not warm to this version as Bouvier took liberties with the score — mixing it to drive different scenarios. While I don’t usually like tossing about the pieces of music, Bouvier did a marvelous job stoking the flames of the narrative. She also blended in natural sounds of wind and thunder as well as taiko drumming to further the tale. There is no disputing that Bouvier was true to Shakespeare.

The ballet begins at the end, with the cast, in black, carrying the dead lovers, in white, above their heads. The two factions move like clashing waves across the stage — coming together and dissolving, often leaving their corpses for brief moments to stare down the enemy.

It is right at the start that Bouvier makes known her style. It’s one that churns — constantly moving in this swirling motion. Often, it’s so fast-moving that the eye cannot absorb the shapes. Other times, the dancers retard their gestures, like a slow-motion film. Thus the movement is cinematic and dreamlike, which heightens the overall drama of the scenes, especially those with the corps de ballet.

unequal partners

Juliet, danced by Madeline Wong, was excellent. She exuded innocence and sincerity that inspired immediate empathy. And while some of the movement, especially the runs into a lift, felt repetitive, she was always in the moment.

Her Romeo, danced by Damiano Artale, did not have her heart. When they were together, he was not fully invested in the dance. He made up for a tepid balcony scene with a heartbreaking pas de deux with the dead/sleeping Juliet in the end.

He was also convincing in the tense fight scene where he destroyed Tybalt, danced with a dash of swaggering arrogance by Loris Bonani.

Nathanael Marie, as a not-so-jolly Mercutio, had the heart of a Romeo. Perhaps a switch in casting will make this “Romeo and Juliet” a perfect one. It sure is close.

 
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