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New from Europe's East
The Lithuanian Ballet's Romeo and Juliet
Summer 1998

by George Jackson

The announcement did not sound promising: a Romeo and Juliet that was to be a concert staging of Prokofiev's overly familiar ballet music, with the dancers as well as the orchestra in full view. The concept was cellist/conductor Mistislav Rostropovich's; the choreography was being devised by Vladimir Vasiliev, whose version of another multi-act ballet, Don Quixote, had been a flop for American Ballet Theatre. The participating company of dancers was an unknown entity outside its homeland: Lithuania. Descriptions of what took place, including the one that follows, will make anyone not actually a witness skeptical that such a hybrid event could possibly be something good or new. Performed twice (May 8 & 9, 1998) during Rostropovich's Russian (Music) Festival in Washington, D.C. at Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, the ballet turned out to be substantial. It was also original, though not arbitrarily so.

All the stage space had been divided into three parts. On an upper platform in back, a sparse set (Serge Barchin's) suggested the architecture of Verona in the Renaissance. On the middle and deepest platform sat the orchestra (Washington's National Symphony) in a circle surrounding conductor Rostropovich, who faced the audience. The lower platform was raked from the orchestra down to the first row of public seats. Two staircases angling from front right and left of center to the far right and left in back, cut through the orchestra to connect the upper and lower platforms for the dancers.

Prokofiev's four-act score (as it was listed in the program; the Oxford Dictionary of Ballet lists it as "three acts with prologue and epilogue," and it is usually performed in three acts) was presented uncut and with just one intermission. Rostropovich made it sound fresh. His rendition had rhythmic spontaneity (which must have been hard on the dancers, but they were up to the challenge) and tonal clarity. Strong orchestral coloring as well as fine shadings alternated as appropriate for the plot. Rostropovich's reading of the score and the instrumentalists' execution was something quite different from the mechanical tempi and thin, smudged sound of the pick-up orchestras Americans are used to hearing at the ballet. From the music came the work's rush of action and press of time. Pity and fear registered in Rostropovich's bearing and features. He was the tragedy's chorus, mediating between actors and spectators.

Vasiliev's choreography conveyed character and character development. His spunky Juliet (Egle Spokaite) grew up because of love and adversity. The princely Romeo (Edvardas Smalakys) was in love with an ideal until reality made him human. Romeo's solo work was on a heroic scale but, as befits a danseur noble, it was restrained in quantity and trickiness compared to that for the demicaractere figures of Paris (Mindaugas Bauzys), Mercutio (Valerijus Fadejev) and Benvolio (Raimundas Maskaliunas). The step vocabulary deployed by Vasiliev was apt and more varied than is usual for choreographers from the Soviet school. Only the extended ensembles for the populace began to seem repetitious and became hampered spatially despite being line formations. The divided stage with its connecting stairs worked well for the soloists. The dance action, which was always legible, did not try to illustrate Shakespeare in painful detail. Juliet's suicide thrust, for instance, was a piece of pure movement more telling than if her hand had held a knife.

The Lithuanian Ballet Company from Vilnius emerged as a more than respectable Soviet-style troupe, able to render leading as well as supporting solo figures convincingly and in some instances, strikingly. Washington's National Symphony-according to many music lovers-is now superior under Leonard Slatkin's direction than when Rostropovich was its regular conductor. Nevertheless, even the harshest critics of Rostropovich's conducting (his cello playing being unassailable) conceded that for this Romeo he was very persuasive, despite his lack of baton technique.

Unquestionably, the event's two star performers were Rostropovich and Spokaite. She's big bodied yet streamlined, like Cynthia Gregory or Darcey Bussell, with Vaganova pliancy and a forthright manner. Rostropovich, near the end, put down his baton and, as the figure of Friar Laurence appeared above him on the high platform, walked forward to where the bodies of the two lovers lay on the incline, heads down toward the audience. Kneeling next to them, he joined their hands. Corny? On paper, yes, but quite a few eyes were moist as the audience gave the conductor and his forces a standing ovation.

How did it seem to those who are monogamously music lovers? According to The Washington Post's Tim Page, the sound of leaps and falls often blunted the orchestral tone and was distracting, but he conceded that in some passages, the dancers added theatrical force.




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Paris Opera Ballet, Spring 2004 30

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