Boston Ballet

'Romeo and Juliet'

by Stephen Arnold

May 20, 2003 -- Boston

Compelled by the dramatic and perceptual force of Sarah Lamb's performance of Juliet in van Danzig's meditation on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, one discovered in the welcome geometry of her arabesque and in the backward sweep of her arms and torso the dance images that illustrate the conflict of Shakespeare's play- divine reason vs. earthly passion. As a reflection of providential harmony, Lamb's arabesque manifests the Elizabethan idea of passion stilled by reason, and in contrast her cambre back literally embodied Juliet's surrender to love's ecstasy and death.

The cambre back's double meaning, whether used for example to depict a bacchant in ecstasy or a dead person, is a convention of ancient pedigree rather than an invention original to van Danzig, nevertheless it neatly serves to illustrate the Elizabethan idea that love is a disease. In fact, love, as a manifestation of passion or desire is synonymous with death. The speaker in one of Shakespeare's sonnets, for example, expresses the equation succinctly in the words 'Desire is Death.' Moreover, if left untreated by Reason's tempering balm or unrequited, the logical outcome of love's pathology is madness, rage, and murderous- ness. Interestingly, in van Danzig's ballet rage, visualized, perhaps, by their red and black costumes, dominates the Capulet sensibility generally and murderous-ness vitiates the character of Tybalt specifically. As there is no clear Montague counter or balance to the Capulet rage, the dramatic picture presented ironically suggests that the love of Romeo and Juliet is continuous with rather than antithetical to the hate and violence of Tybalt.

Although the action of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet unfolds in the abundance of mid-summer's light, in the ballet the décor's monumental sets, the non-use of 'natural' lighting - to mark for example the pace of days-, and Prokofiev's heavy handed depiction of the Capulets, particularly the music for the Capulet Ball, suggest instead a world caught in the deep shadows of eternal sunset. In fact, the nearly colorless, but recognizable 16th century costumes of Verona's citizens gives pale witness to the perennial half-darkness of this side-lit world. It is a world, moreover, where the inimical Tybalt commands as the Prince of Bats rather than Cats and the light of reason that radiates from Lamb's arabesque fatuously toils.

As the permanent dusk in van Danzig's Romeo and Juliet diminished the power of light and reason to shape events, it fell, therefore, to the resonating sounds of Prokofiev's score to generate meaning, shape time, and inform feeling. A repeated use of musical themes, for example, accompanied the waking activities of the populace in the public square before the Capulet gate, and grinning music typically accompanied grinning group dances. Van Danzig's most dramatic use of music, however, occurred in the Nuptial scene, Act III, scene one of his three-act ballet. At this moment the relationship between sight and sound slips its balletic moorings and steams into a filmic sea. Here, like characters in a movie, the lovers, the stilled Juliet cuddled gently next to the awakening Romeo, are oblivious to the fierce thunderhead of dissonance the brass section builds around them. So powerful is this towering sound of Fate that it sonically fuses the image of love with death and crosses the lovers as well as van Danzig's squinting meditation on Romeo ad Juliet out.

In spite of its dramatic competencies, the forced marriage between the Elizabethan and Soviet grand narratives i.e. 'divinity shapes our ends' and 'class struggle' shapes our ends or the image of Lamb's arabesque and the Montague 'people' verses the Capulet 'aristocracy,' make the ballet intellectually and aesthetically squint. For this viewer, the ballet became instead an enjoyable string of dances that highlighted the abilities of Sarah Lamb and Pollyana Ribeiro as Juliet, Sabi Varga and Simon Ball as Romeo, Paul Thrussell and Christopher Budzynski as Mercutio, Yuri Yanowsky and Raul Salamanica as Tybalt, and Erika Lambe, Shannon Parsely, and Melanie Atkins as the Harlots to name a few. Although one could easily distance oneself from the content and the contemporary ideological reference of van Danzig's Romeo and Juliet, the rhetorical force of the ballet orchestra's performance, conducted by Jonathan Mcphee, on the other hand, was irresistible.

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