What is there left to say when audience members respond to Tybalt’s murder with . . . giggles?
Perhaps it was Christopher Coomer’s banging fist, synchronized with those pounding bass drums. It was just too hokey to take him seriously. It made people laugh the way bad acting in a melodramatic gunslinger makes everyone chortle.
As I watched him wriggle through his last moments on stage, I could not help but chuckle along with others, until I remembered that this was supposed to be a well-touted world premiere and "the highlight of the 2014-15 season,” according to Houston Ballet News.
And as I sat through the remainder of Stanton Welch’s heavy-handed new Romeo and Juliet, I had to ask myself if this was even the same company I had seen perform John Neumeier’s stunning Midsummer Night’s Dream just months ago. The latter made Houston Ballet appear as one of America’s most sophisticated companies, clearly at the top of its game.
Welch seems to have nothing in particular to say about Shakespeare’s story, and that’s what makes his version so terribly dull.
Welch’s Romeo, however, takes Houston Ballet more than two steps back. I know these dancers are stellar, so what went wrong?
Firstly, the conquest itself. More than a few choreographers have made Romeo and Juliet their own, so it goes without saying that Welch would want an original version for his dancers. That said, beware!
In the past few decades so many deeply talented choreographers have re-thought this choreography that it has become increasingly difficult to make something truly fresh. A new version has to reflect a new attitude, or it just looks old-fashioned.
Take, for example, Rennie Harris’ wildly popular hip-hop concert dance version, Rome and Jewels, for his talented company Puremovement. Love it or hate it, you never forget the battling Capulets and Montagues, surrounded by chain-link fences on an otherwise barren stage. It’s almost 20 years since I’ve seen it, and I can recall that choreography in my memory without much effort.
Ballet Maribor’s ethereal 2005 Radio and Juliet, by the Romanian dancer and choreographer Edward Clug to songs by Radiohead, is equally unforgettable. Juliet’s sort of post-traumatic stress disorder in that ballet was a strikingly new take, and the great thing about it was that Clug’s concept was realized as choreography, not mere speechless narrative.
Before his death, I remember Rudi van Dantzig telling me that his version for Dutch National Ballet had nothing to do with love. “The story is all about death,” he remarked solemnly during an interview. It might seem like a strange idea to some, but it is nonetheless an idea about the play.
In this new production for Houston Ballet, Welch seems to have nothing in particular to say about Shakespeare’s story, and that’s what makes his version so terribly dull.
Neumeier’s Midsummer had plenty of old-fashioned pantomime in it, and the dancers brought it off with sophistication. Careful use of mime can be successful in conveying certain aspects of narrative. The mime in Welch’s Romeo, however, is poorly integrated with the movement and it even dominates entire scenes. I had to keep from dozing as Friar Lawrence “explained” the sleeping potion whose effects mimic death.
His was more bad acting than skillful gesture. Elsewhere, there is so much beckoning, swooning, head-shaking and hand-wringing that the overall texture feels hollow, as if the dancers were trying to cover up some basic emptiness in Welch's choreographic scheme.
Connor Walsh, who was so funny and charming in Midsummer, looks mostly wooden and half-asleep as Romeo in this production. Couldn’t Welch find something more for him to do than wander around clutching his heart with a benign expression on his face? Karina Gonzalez as Juliet certainly looks the part, but Welch hasn’t given her much of anything to actually dance.
Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s sets and costumes are colorful, but in a nostalgic way. Her contributions look more like something from a late 20th century staging than any sort of new take on Verona and its warring factions. The orchestra under Ermanno Florio’s baton had a lazy time of it in the Thursday night opener, and the brass section, in particular, sounded weary as the ballet moved into its third hour.
Welch’s Romeo takes Houston Ballet more than two steps back. I know these dancers are stellar, so what went wrong?
If there is anything to admire, it is that Welch involved many of the children from the Houston Ballet Academy, and they bring a little more life into the ballet in the party and street scenes. Oliver Halkowich as Benvolio is authentic and funny, though the role is no challenge for him.
Every now and then, American ballet companies offer their “new” versions of the classics, and the results are often mixed.
In the case of Peter Boal’s landmark Giselle a few years back for Pacific Northwest Ballet, some attendees raved while others found it a bore. It was recently announced that American Ballet Theater will offer Alexei Ratmansky’s well-researched production of The Sleeping Beauty for the company’s 75th anniversary season.
Houston Ballet might be touting its Romeo and Juliet as the company’s most important offering this season, but I am still convinced that the real jewel thus far remains Neumeier’s Midsummer.