New York — The pressure was on Wednesday night as the Joffrey Ballet arrived on the stage of the David H. Koch Theatre at New York’s Lincoln Center to perform Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor’s fiercely modern yet emotionally fervent version of “Romeo and Juliet” before a sold out house.
After all, this marked the company’s first major return visit to New York since 1995, when it left the city where it was founded to establish its new home in Chicago.
But the Joffrey, presented here by The Joyce Foundation, always thrives under pressure. And it was clear that the dancers were on fire from the moment the lights came up on Pastor’s production — a work that deftly transfers Shakespeare’s story of love and factional warfare from Renaissance Verona to the tumultuous history of Italy in the 20th century (from the rise of fascism in the 1930s, to the postwar years of the 1950s, to the Berlusconi era of the 1990s), and uses black-and-white (and later color) archival film footage to set the scene.
The sense that the dancers were breathing as one was evident from the start as young men and women gathered in a piazza to chat and flirt, and as the scene soon erupted in bitter rivalry among factions — all suggested by dancing of extraordinary seamlessness and intensity in this ballet notable for its sublimely naturalistic storytelling.
Those who have watched the company’s transformation in recent years could sense the invisible hand of artistic director Ashley Wheater in the dancers’ directness and fluid ease of movement, and in the exquisite but unforced use of their upper bodies and arms.
This is the third time the Joffrey has danced Pastor’s ballet — having presented its U.S. premiere in 2014 and a remount this past fall. And clearly it meshes perfectly with the company’s modernist sensibilities and unique acting skills. At the same time, Pastor’s work ideally echoes the cinematic flow of Prokofiev’s extraordinary score, which is played beautifully by the Chicago Philharmonic — the Joffrey’s official orchestra, led by Scott Speck — which also has made the trip to New York.
Although four different couples will assume the title roles during the run of the ballet through Sunday, opening night honors went to Rory Hohenstein and Christine Rocas, who debuted the work in Chicago. And it is not hyperbole to say they have forged one of those unique partnerships seen only very rarely in dance history. The pair’s chemistry is palpable, from the electricity between them when they stand completely still at their first encounter, to the youthful ardor and mutual testing of each other in the iconic balcony scene, to the erotic heat that emanates from the bed scene in the wake of their secret marriage, to the desperate cry for help that has the petite and willowy Rocas dragging Hohenstein’s body across the stage. Magic.
But they most certainly are not alone. Emblematic of the bitter rivalry that tears the lovers apart is the furious dancing between Yoshihisa Arai as Romeo’s provocative friend, Mercutio, and Temur Suluashvili as Tybalt, the black-uniformed young fascist Juliet’s parents wish her to marry. Mercutio’s relentless taunting and mockery of Tybalt has been brilliantly choreographed by Pastor, but Arai, who dances like the sleekest of alley cats, veritably flies off the roof with it in his bravura performance. And Suluashvili’s palpable contempt and dismissal of him is enough to send a chill down your spine.
To the role of Capulet, Juliet’s father, the ever-imposing Fabrice Calmels, brings an ideal sense of authoritarianism, whether in the public square or in his attempts to control his rebellious daughter. And April Daly brings a mix of aristocratic decorum, maternal warmth and tragic helplessness to the role of his wife.
The entire ensemble dances with impressive skill, bringing a mix of meticulous synchrony and excellent partnering as well as a fine sense of individuality to everything they do.
Tatyana Van Walsum’s minimalist geometric set (with lighting by Bert Dalhuysen) skillfully balances the use of archival film (just enough to make a stunning dramatic statement) with equally fine use of glass panels and a gauzy white curtain. And her color-coded costumes follow suit.
In a small private gathering before the performance, Pastor (accompanied by his adult son and daughter), spoke about how the “Romeo and Juliet” story seemed more relevant than ever given the current state of the world. And while he admitted that art cannot solve these problems, he hoped it could make us more alert to them. Without question that is what the Joffrey’s triumphant performance managed to do in the most heartstoppingly beautiful way.