Krysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet is not going to displace any of the perennial favorites. You have to give credit to people who try to put their own stamp on the works of Shakespeare but it’s risky because it’s easy to overreach and not all of Pastor’s choices were good ones. Cutting the ballet to two hours and ten minutes was not inherently bad but Mercutio’s death scene, just for one, is a touchstone of the ballet. It’s not something that can be easily discarded and Pastor’s extensive cuts lessened the dramatic impact of the story. Prokofiev composed the music for this ballet with the text firmly in mind and there’s little wiggle room as it is so specific in its narrative content. Introducing the element of time as part of the character may have been interesting as a concept but I don’t know that it told the story any better. Pastor began the story in the Italy of the 1930s, replete with overtones of fascism. Then it moved to the 1950s and finally finished in the 1990s. The conceit is that these two families keep re-living the same story as they are under a curse. Mildly interesting, but it didn’t advance our understanding of the story in any appreciable way. Still, the choreographer deserves credit for courage, shortcomings notwithstanding.

Rory Hohenstein (Romeo) and Christine Rocas (Juliet) © Cheryl Mann
Rory Hohenstein (Romeo) and Christine Rocas (Juliet)
© Cheryl Mann

In the early going, I kept losing track of main characters which made it difficult to track the story. Part of the fault was due to Tatyana van Walsum’s costuming which failed to make them easily recognizable but the more salient point is that Pastor’s choreography was about making flashy dances more than it was about characters telling a tale. The best versions I’ve seen have generally succeeded because the choreographer focused on telling the story rather than making dances. Eventually I sorted out all the players, but not without some work. It was good dancing by the whole company, top to bottom, but ultimately the story wasn’t told as well as I would have liked.

Down to casting… Pastor’s Juliet is no naïve child. She is a woman, inexperienced to be sure, but not playing with dolls or cared for by a nurse. Christine Rocas played Juliet with exuberant lyricism that won me over completely. She threw herself into everything with outstanding freedom and range of movement that was touching as well as exciting. I was reminded of Paul Simon’s song about Graceland. Losing love was definitely like a window in her heart and everybody saw when she was blown apart. Unfortunately, I kept wishing that Rory Hohenstein, her Romeo, matched her poignant expressivity. He never reached her level and it seemed like she was carrying the dramatic load on her own. Yoshihisa Arai’s Mercutio was the most successful character after Rocas’s Juliet. His dancing was a little on the affected side but he was nonetheless fully engaged in the drama. He completely dominated the action scenes with Tybalt and his dancing far exceeded that of the rest of the men. Lord Capulet and Tybalt were too close to the same person to work dramatically for me. Fabrice Calmels, widely noted as the tallest dancer in ballet, was physically impressive and he moved gracefully as Lord Capulet. He’s more notable for his physique than his stage presence because I found him stony rather than stern and commanding as Lord Capulet. Temur Suluashvili played Tybalt with much the same hard stoniness and I kept thinking that they could have traded roles at the halfway mark and no one would even have noticed. These two characters are the pivotal Capulet men and have to serve as a counterweight to the Montagues but they ended up being paper thin.

© Cheryl Mann
© Cheryl Mann
It’s been more than twenty years since the Joffrey Ballet has visited New York and it was so nice to have them back again. Here’s hoping that they don’t go so long before the next visit. The Joffrey Ballet of my youth was a company of idiosyncratic and terrifically talented individuals. There were dancers of all different sizes and shapes and they all had something unique and special about them. I can still see that ethos in the company today under Ashley Wheater and I’d like to see more of it.