After the tinsel and glitz of Nutcracker season, Atlanta Ballet’s premiere of Roméo et Juliette at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre proves that a story ballet, stripped of heavy costumes and ornate sets, can still strike an emotional chord. French choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot relies on abstract gesture over pantomime and symbolism over props to further the narrative, bold choices considering the story’s complexity.
In less capable hands, such an attempt could go horribly wrong. When movement — especially ballet vocabulary — is the sole conveyer of character, plot details and narrative arc, it can become over dramatized or confusing. But Maillot’s shape-driven choreography is bolstered by the sleekly minimal set and costume design, and the result is a visually stunning, emotionally evocative evening.
Ernest Mignon-Ernest’s gorgeous, sculptural set provides the backdrop for the action to unfold, untethered to a specific time and place. As if in a modern art museum, curved white walls tower above the stage; they are overlapping blank spaces that evoke both vast emptiness and infinite possibility. Jerome Kaplan’s sophisticated costumes — structured metallic jackets and luxe, flowing dresses — could exist at once in the Renaissance and somewhere in the future.
The production’s minimalist elements allow freedom for character exploration, and Atlanta Ballet’s dancers rise to the challenge with mature, nuanced performances. Though nearly all of the roles are impeccably danced, it is Christian Clark and Alessa Rogers as Romeo and Juliette who shine the brightest. Rogers is wide-eyed and youthful, but her powerful dancing elevates her presence and commands attention. Clark, with his floppy hair and drunk-in-love grin, is the perfect counterpart. Together, they emerge as one character, intertwined and inseparable.
The chemistry between Rogers and Clark is real, and every physical connection feels charged. Act I ends when Clark wraps himself around her, kisses her arm in a gesture of worship, then disappears, leaving her to reach back and flutter her hand with the memory of his touch.
In what becomes a symbol of their deep connection, the two often place their hands together and ripple them downward. Sweet and innocent, the motif is an effective expression of William Shakespeare’s poetic words.
Juliette’s bedchamber is the setting for a less traditional duet with her Nurse, danced by Rachel Van Buskirk. Here Serge Prokofiev’s famous score is highly narrative, jerky and quick, like the old woman’s temperament. In response, Buskirk delivers a fast-paced, unexpected performance, and she and Rogers create a relationship through the quirky rigidity of Maillot’s contemporary choreography.
But not all of Maillot’s choreography is this innovative, and he is often too reliant on line and shape. This is perhaps most evident in Friar Laurence, danced by John Welker, whose dramatic reaches and sharp movements sometimes appear comical in their attempt to convey impending doom. Luckily, Welker, with his sinewy limbs in lustrous black fabric, brings emotional weight to the somewhat thin role.
Heath Gill and Benjamin Stone, as Mercutio and Benvolio, respectively, also deliver convincing performances that grow deeper as the story unfolds. Gill’s treatment of the fun-loving Mercutio is spot on, and, along with Stone and Clark, the three form an endearing friendship full of playful gestures and adolescent humor. When Mercutio is killed in Act II — an abstracted scene that involves one of the production’s few props — we feel the impact, and the stage is set for the coming tragedy.
Though Maillot’s movement vocabulary is at times stiff and exacting, he is a master of staging. At the masquerade ball in Act I, the movement of bodies through space creates a sort of visual confusion from which Romeo and Juliette emerge, unexpectedly spotlighted and standing face to face. In Act II, after Romeo murders Tybalt, the Capulets and Montagues grieve in slow motion. At first, the choice feels cinematic and out of place, but the staging is so good, the movement of characters reaching out in gestures of grief so finely tuned, the moment works.
Expertly lit by Dominique Drillot, Roméo et Juliette is a feast for the eyes and the mind. Abstract elements allow for many takes on the story’s universal themes of impossible love, warring tribes and violent revenge. Juliette’s balcony — a thin, curving ramp atop which she looks down to Romeo — suggests hope, not separation. The rich color palette of muted pastels for the Capulets, deep jewel tones and textured blacks for the Montagues symbolize the houses divided. A slanted white cross projected on the wall behind the Friar raises spiritual questions as he gives Juliette the sleeping potion in the final act.
In its simplicity, Roméo et Juliette is smart, beautiful and epic. Released from a specific setting, viewers are free to feel, not just understand, the world’s most famous love story. Shakespeare would have approved.
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