Friday, November 1, 2013

Milwaukee Ballet opens with Michael Pink's "Romeo and Juliet"

The principals in Romeo and Juliet don't think. They act on instinct and without reservation. The prudence of two minor characters -- Benvolio, Prince Escalus -- and Romeo's good intentions prove a feeble barrier before the massed animal energy of the the feuding clans, especially the younger Capulet and Montague males.

Hovhannisyan, San Miguel. Mark Frohna photo.
I think that sums up the premise of Michael Pink's Romeo and Juliet, which the Milwaukee Ballet revived once again Thursday (Oct. 31) evening, to open its 2013-14 season.

Pink's premise makes sense for ballet -- dance does sex and violence well and nuanced moral argument not so well. Pink's premise has never been clearer than in the highly charged current version. Thursday, the level of physicality, sensuality and brutality was startling from time to time, and not by accident.

Andrews Sill, conducting the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, brought out the brutality especially in Prokofiev's score, with a blood-curdling quadruple-forte blast of the sustained tutti tone cluster at the top of the overture. The special-effects lightning and thunder struck me as over the top, but I like the Dante-esque scrim of a swarm of stylized bodies spiraling into the distance. When the lights come up behind the scrim, the entire cast, in an artfully arranged body pile, becomes part of the grisly image painted on the scrim.

Yes, it was Halloween night, but Pink wasn't just saying Boo! with all this. He was saying something like this: "Yes, R&J is a pretty love story. But it's also the hideous, murderous history of bad human behavior in microcosm."

So that remains ominously in the back the viewer's mind through the rough comedy strewn through Act 1. Boys will be boys and all that, but we know where Mercutio's teasing of the hot-headed Tybalt will go.

Alexandre Ferreira, the company's rising young star, made Mercutio utterly believable as a reckless and prodigiously talented prankster. (He will play Romeo, opposite Nicole Teague, Friday and Sunday.) As an actor, Ferreira has a special way of focusing on the object of Mercutio's interaction. When he was in Romeo's face or Benvolio's, even for a moment, he was totally there. When he flirted with the girls on the streets of Verona, each one in turn got his full attention, however fleeting. This sort of thing makes a person charismatic in real life and even more so on stage. When his focus turned to the house, he embraced the audience in the same electric way.

Pink assigned Mercutio all manner of athletic activity, from sword fighting to physical clowning with Ryan Martin's Tybalt, Davit Hovhannisyan's Romeo, Marc Petrocci's Benvolio and Nadia Thompson, as the Nurse. Ferreira's effortless grace through it all was a wonder -- even the simple act of hopping up to perch on a scaffold drew grasps and laughter Thursday.

Martin, a cheerful, all-American boy type in real life and most roles, was unrecognizable in Fabio wig and a villain's facial hair. And the easy-going fellow also disappeared beneath an avid, tightly-held rigidity. Martin's Tybalt always leans a little forward, looking for a fight. When he finds one, he won't stop charging until he's killed.

The men drive the action, and the Milwaukee Ballet now has remarkable men. But the lovers are central and become more so as both Shakespeare's play and the ballet go on.

Hovhannisyan and Luz San Miguel, among the company's older veterans, clearly have not forgotten what teen love is like. They throw themselves together with abandon in the climactic love duets and the more naturalistic love scenes that serve as denouement when the dancing and the music die down. That requires trust, courage and rapport, all of which they have.

Pink has improved Juliet's role over the years. In early incarnations, she was left to more or less improvise a long tantrum and to act her way through key scenes. The role is more choreographed now, and the acting flows into and out of the dance as naturally as good recitative flows into and out of an opera aria.

The role has an arc, and San Miguel drew it precisely in movement style: coltish young girl in private with Nurse, porcelain perfection in a getting-to-know-you duet with Timothy O'Donnell (as a dear, sympathetic Paris), tentative and volatile in her furtive first dance with Romeo, explosive and wild in the balcony scene duet, more placid and sure in the loving duet with Romeo the morning after.

I've seen Pink's R&J four times, now (or is it five?). Frankly, this isn't my sort of thing, but it has been a great pleasure to see the company improve and grow into it and to see Pink improve the ballet every time out.

Pink does not merely relate the Shakespearean story we all know. He couches that story in a canny dance structure pinned to contrasting sets of duets that develop over all three acts.

Michael Pink
Two occur during the Capulet's ball. San Miguel joined O'Donnell in the most exquisite adagio, all about placement, delicacy and decorum. O'Donnell, the perfect gentleman, kept his distance and admired San Miguel's beauty and balance. She met his eyes and wore a Mona Lisa smile throughout. Paris put Juliet on a pedestal, and she rather liked it there.

As the crowd leaves for the buffet table, Juliet's eyes meet Romeo's. They join a dance that starts and stops and starts and stops. A few steps, and she flees. He catches up, a few more steps. She flings herself into his arms, then flees. They do it again; she kisses him passionately, then runs away. That pas de deux says: Whoa -- we're not with Paris anymore!

In the balcony scene, all the halting beginnings of the ballroom phrases return, but in private in the moonlight they come to full, exhilarating flower. By contrast, when Paris gets his second chance to dance with Juliet, San Miguel goes through the same ballroom scene steps, but replaces the pliant delicacy with rigidity. This dance says: I'm just going through the motions.

This set of dances not only develop character and advance the narrative. It also firms up the dramatic arc and give the ballet some abstract structure. These dances make the piece feel right.

I don't recall noticing much of this previously. Maybe this company is dancing Romeo and Juliet better. Maybe Pink has improved the piece to make his processes clearer. Or maybe I'm just seeing more because I've had a lot of practice with it.

The Milwaukee Ballet will repeat R&J at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. For tickets and further information, visit the company's website or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Principal Casting

Thursday and Saturday: Juliet - Luz San Miguel; Romeo - Davit Hovhannisyan; Mercutio - Alexandre Ferreira; Tybalt - Ryan Martin; Lady Capulet; Susan Gartell; Lord Capulet - Dennis Malinkine; Nurse - Nadia Thompson.

Friday and Sunday: Juliet - Nicole Teague; Romeo - Ferreira; Mercutio - Petrocci; Benvolio - Mengjun Chen; Tybalt - Martin; Paris - Hovhannisyan; Lord Capulet - O'Donnell; Lady Capulet; Rachel Malehorn; Nurse - Kara Bruzina.

Concert Bargain Alert: If your Saturday (Nov. 2) night is free, do drop by the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist at 8 p.m. to hear the MSO play music by Arvo Paert, Bach/Raff and Bruckner, with the talented Francesco Lecce-Chong conducting.  All seats $5. Review coming soon.