In the last two years, the company has been restaging ballets from the treasure trove of Ballet Philippines repertoire. National Artist Alice Reyes' "Romeo and Juliet" is the last classical full length ballet to be restored before the company steps into their golden season. The idea of passage of rites at the end of the 49th season is quite fitting and beautifully symbolic. The dancers on the company frontline have been gifted with experience that can equip them as they step into the next chapter of the company's journey. Much like how Balanchine transfers his legacy through his trusted dancers, the company now has a fleet of people who worked directly with the choreographers (which is of utmost importance) in restaging moments in dance history. While it is not an assurance that the creations will be protected from ruin, there is a glimmer of hope that it will stand the test of time. There is also an opportunity to revisit the work and improve it as necessary.
This version of Romeo and Juliet was originally meant to be a commissioned work by a foreign guest choreographer. By some twist of fate it ended up being choreographed by national artist for dance Alice Reyes. The choreographer expressed that she was inspired by the grandiose Bolshoi Ballet version and the temperament of the San Francisco Michael Smuin's version. While the company has performed Romeo and Juliet several times, this version has only been performed thrice after premiering in 1981. In the recenty concluded performances the titular role was shared by Denise Parungao and guest artist extraordinaire Joseph Gatti, Monica Gana and Ronelson Yadao and Jemima Reyes and Victor Maguad. As declared by the choreographer most of it is in its original format with minor changes to adapt to skill level of the performers.
Test of Competence
The production proved to be quite a challenge for the dancers. Reyes had everyone dancing intricate patterns with grand sweeps, swivels and quickly executed partnering. This included all the character dancers who in their senior age also had to perform lifts, backbends grand battemonts (kick extensions). To say the least there were a lot of vibrant moments in the ballet celebrating the capabilities of the dancers. The competence of the company was highlighted when the Manila Symphony Orchestra would have evident misses on the tempo and the dancers would adapt to unreasonably slow timing or unbelievably quick pace. They thrived with a smile and a few unnecessary beads of sweat on their foreheads. Their coping mechanism was commendable beyond words.
Denise Parungao on opening night glistened with a new found maturity in her performance. She has always excelled in lyrical ballets but her depth in interpretation has visibly grown through the years. Her emotions were not reserved for the grand extended movements but the motionless moments as well. Her character was well sustained throughout the ballet. Fluid in movement and emotions, this may very well be one of her best performances ever.
In this version there is very little opportunity for Romeo to show off tantalizing tricks. Despite this, Joseph Gatti still captivated the audience with his portrayal of Romeo. He still delivered his usual six pirouettes ending in arabesque and suave jumps which were highly impressive but he put a little bit more on the table to cement his performance. His vulnerable moments were his best. Memorable was when he stabbed Tybalt. After the first unceremonious strike, he twisted the sword shoving it even deeper into the body in one vibrating movement in complete maniacal rage. Eyes fixed on Tybalt, his eyes turned soft as he had realized what he had just done. No tricks there just an authentic moment shared with the audience. It's true sometimes less is more.
Together Parungao and Gatti conquered the challenges provided by the orchestra. While they were robbed of a few moments of breath which the canned music provided they did not allow the speed of the tempo to take away the whirlwind effect of the balcony scene. Their transition from one lift to another were silky smooth. With every luxurious backbend or grand lift so much emotion was drawn out. They were equally mesmerizing in the bed scene. They were, throughout the ballet, fully committed to each other melting my heart both as a dancer and as an audience member.
Noteworthy were the performances of Ballet Philippines' technicians. Eugene Obile as Tybalt, Earl Arisola as Mercutio and Victor Maguad as Benvolio all delivered the required testosterone to dance side by side Joseph Gatti. They represented strong dancing from the Philippines with their expansive leaps and clean footwork. Butch Esperanza who played Count Capulet moved me to tears as he carried Juliet thinking she was dead. Every bit a veteran his face alone told the story of instant regret and inconsolable forlorn.
Missing the pointe
The story of the ballet is well known to many but I believe that prior knowledge of the story should not be necessary when watching a ballet. All key elements should be clear as day. While the restaging was a vibrant one, I found that there were key scenes that were overlooked or underloved. In the first act the Prince of Verona gives fair warning to both the Capulets and the Montagues that lives shall pay for the forfeit of peace. However within days, the rivalry caused the death of both Mercutio and Tybalt. In the literature, the imagery repeats itself when the Prince of Verona imposes his final say about the rivalry which makes sense of the prologue that says "Two households both alike in dignity in fair Verona... where civil blood makes civil hands unclean". The Prince of Verona giving his final judgement of Romeo was not shown in the ballet which for me is of vital importance. This missed scene emphasizes that Romeo and Juliet is not simply a love story but a story about the uselessness of rivalry and the importance of moral restraint. The scene also explains why Romeo had to leave Juliet so urgently because if he did not leave he would be killed. In this version after the bodies are taken away, Romeo's goodbye quickly follows. It should be noted that the Bolshoi version which is one of the inspirations for the ballet also did not have this scene but instead had both parties come out with the both dead bodies and the two camps blaming each other through mime and tableau framing the bed scene that ends with a goodbye.
Another important scene that was missing was the unfortunate timeline of Brother John who was supposed to deliver the Priest's message to Romeo. Since this was not included, it seemed as if the priest was irresponsible and remiss in his promise to Juliet making him out to be the ultimate murderer.
In the last scene, when Romeo comes to see the supposedly dead body, Paris is nowhere to be seen or he was presumably already killed by Romeo. This diminishes the tragedy a bit because it does not quite show how desperate and ravaged Romeo is at this time.
All the deaths with the exception of Romeo and Juliet's demise were underwhelming. When Mercutio dies, no one except his lover came to his aid. When Tybalt dies, again no one commiserated. Rosaline took over Mother Capulet's lament. She didn't even touch the body instead she and the husband performed a very cold series of choreography. No tears for Tybalt. When the Capulets found Juliet's cold body, Mother Capulet still does not have the opportunity to hold her child. In all these dying scenes, choreography was prioritized over sentimental movement which left me unaffected and unmoved. It wasn't until Romeo and Juliet's final death that I was emotionally shaken.
A ballet is of course based on the director's vision which I fully respect and acknowledge, I just think the story could have been more true to the text had it included more of the layers and less ensemble dancing. While I had issues with the story telling there is a whole lot to still be proud of. First of all, this was a Filipino made ballet that lasted decades. The mere fact that it was ornately made by National Artist Alice Reyes with sets and costumes by National Artist Salvador Bernal instantly makes it a historical gem worthy of preservation. Second of all, the ballet as a whole had a wealth of movement. The aesthetic of this version was strong, bold and memorable. The sequences were intricate and musical. Lastly, it is a ballet that showcased that Ballet Philippines is resilient, strong and competent. This is a company ready for their golden season.