Gloom. Gloom. Gloom. The tall windows to the outside world are meant to admit as much light as possible to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s biggest studio, but right now they deliver only the dull gray January sheen of a raw Seattle Friday. The dimness intensifies the depressing state of the production crawling to life on the well-used floor. The show opens next Thursday night, but snippets of the piece haven’t even been taught yet, nobody’s wholly confident about the parts that have been taught, and thanks in part to union rules—the dancers here are proud members of AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists—the half-dozen hours left for rehearsal today are all that remain before the choreographer comes to town on Monday.
The choreographer in question is Jean-Christophe Maillot. It’s his Roméo et Juliette, French orthography courtesy of his Ballets de Monte-Carlo, that’s being performed here for the first time ever by an American ballet company. His streamlined, stylized, stylish Euro-version uses Prokofiev’s stunning music, one of the greatest ballet scores ever, but ditches a lot of old-school ballet posturing and wraps the whole thing in a flashback.
PNB artistic director Peter Boal picked this piece for his third season on the job, and because he’s dumped something of a local favorite, it’s his biggest break with longstanding company tradition. His longtime predecessor Kent Stowell’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, classically overstuffed right down to its name, deployed fancy sets by Broadway darling Ming Cho Lee and an assemblage of lesser-known Tchaikovsky music from, as one wag put it, everything but that composer’s Romeo and Juliet. Discarding that mildly beloved chestnut for something fresher, hipper, sexier is seen around here as a sacrilege or a gamble.
Right now that gamble looks dubious. Company scuttlebutt paints Maillot as a tough perfectionist who knows precisely what he wants, and at the moment, almost nobody in this roomful of dancers and ballet masters and musicians thinks he’ll have enough time to get it. One veteran top-rank dancer looks shell-shocked. She’s slated to appear in next Friday’s alternate cast but hasn’t been given much rehearsal time and won’t get any more until Thursday because the push now is just to get the first cast up and running. “It’s unprecedented” at PNB to be this late, she says. “It’s a lot of information for one person to stage.”
That person is Maillot’s emissary from Monaco, Giovanna Lorenzoni. She was present at the creation of the work in 1996 and knows it inside out, which is why he has made her the stager (or, in French, the lingua franca of ballet, répétiteur) for this piece, the person assigned to teach it to the company. The rub: She has taught it outside Monte Carlo only a handful of times before. Normally a petite, wiry Italian whirlwind of unbounded energy and precise, piquant Italian-accented direction, she now commits an unpardonable ballet sin by showing up fifteen minutes late to an anxious room and wasting that precious chunk of the day’s union-mandated six hours of rehearsal time.
“This rehearsal, please, keep your volume down to a minimum, because Giovanna cannot really talk,” stern PNB ballet master Otto Neubert announces in his German accent. Lorenzoni has finally been attacked by a serious case of the flu that has already infected a third of the company, some of whom look like they should be home in bed, some of whom already are. Dancers like warmth to keep their muscles loose, but today in the normally overheated studio, humidified by forty-odd dancers’ breath and sweat, the air feels vaguely pestilential, as if you can smell the viruses wafting around. Wearing a long orange scarf around her neck and a faded version of her high-wattage smile, Lorenzoni dutifully drags herself across the floor and croaks her commands in her job of getting the piece into the minds and bodies of the dancers.
“You are seeing a ballet company come unglued. It’s a fragile organism,” says Stewart Kershaw, the dapper silver-haired Englishman who is the creator and longtime conductor of the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra. Bad enough that the production is way late in coming together, in part because of all the illness, but an even scarier situation has emerged that none of the dancers is willing to mention. After trying for weeks to tough out a back problem, the company’s original first-cast Juliet bowed out just three days ago, dumping the responsibility of nine performances and one dress rehearsal onto the only other dancer who’s learned the part.
Kershaw frowns. “It’s a scandal that they had only two casts of Juliet. I hope they learn from this.” But that particular learning experience will have to wait. Right now the dancers have got to learn the rest of the piece and figure out how to interpret it.
Upstairs in the sanctuary of his office, the normally unflappable Peter Boal, ensconced in Seattle after a long, illustrious dancing and teaching career at New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, has been feeling unaccustomedly “stressed.” When he taps out his customary pre-performance email message to the Board of Trustees, it comes out sounding anything but usual. “We are now a few days away from the premiere of our new production of Ballet de Monte Carlo’s [sic] Roméo et Juliette,” it begins. “We are not ready.” Nonetheless, Boal adopts an air of brave optimism: “Have no fear, though; we are never ready at this point, and the curtain always goes up to reveal the finest athleticism, artistry and inspiration that is PNB.”
Still, the facts are the facts: “Carla”—principal dancer Carla Körbes, a sensuously precise Brazilian blond protégé of Boal’s and his first and most golden import from New York City Ballet—“was one of our two Juliets until Tuesday, when a back injury prevented her from dancing. She will heal, but not in time for this run of Roméo. James”—James Moore, a young but rising corps member thrust into by far the biggest role of his young career—“one of our two Romeos, is hoping to recover from his current back injury in time for his performances the second week. I hope none of you is experiencing the flu epidemic that we are. As of today, 16 dancers have been out with the flu, with 7 out in one day. Two of our ballet masters have had it, and our sole stager, Giovanna Lorenzoni (now that’s a name!), currently has it.”
And: “You may still be wondering about the, we-have-only-one-Juliet part. We know Noe”—Noelani Pantastico, a beautiful, brilliant, mostly home-grown dancer who despite her principal rank has until now been kept slightly in the shadows—“to be something of a phenomenon, but nine performances in a row is probably too much, even for her.” He goes on to describe “an exciting solution” that involves having Bernice Coppieters, Monte Carlo’s original Juliet, fly to Seattle “for one performance the second week. She will also be here prior to the performance to rehearse and be available should the invincible Miss Pantastico need help.” Despite Boal’s perennial optimism, that deal isn’t quite done, but he adds, “Amidst all of the chaos, the production is coming together beautifully.”
Downstairs, dancers dispute that. Veteran principal Olivier Wevers says, “Poor planning! People always get sick or get hurt. . . . I don’t know whose idea it was to do this in three weeks.” Lorenzoni, he says, is “one of the best we’ve ever had. She said this is the shortest she’s ever had” to put the production together. “There’s nothing like time. No matter how fast you learn it, it takes a while to get it in your body and feel comfortable.” And then he utters the thought spreading through the company even faster than the flu: “I think there has been a curse on this ballet. It seems to get worse and worse and worse.”
A few minutes later, Lorenzoni shows the corps members some material on a video screen. A longtime principal dancer lounging by the window smirks, turns his fingers into guns and fires them sardonically in time with the music. But that’s about the only humor visible in the otherwise dispirited room. As the afternoon wears on, dancers trudge through their parts, and Lorenzoni and the company’s three ballet masters, her partners in teaching the piece, struggle to hold their attention.
“They needed more time,” Boal admits. But “it will be fine. I think it probably was sufficient time, but things like injuries and flu set you back. In a way, you get what you get. If we had seven weeks, we’d probably procrastinate and still not be ready. A lot of our preparation thrives on that ‘I don’t know if we’re going to make it.’ It gets everybody up, and it’s how a lot of people deal with performance.”
In the studio, Seth Orza, a newcomer to Seattle who, like Boal, has years of performing at the hectic New York City Ballet under his dance belt, shrugs philosophically. “It happens. Sometimes all three casts go out.”
Maybe so, but much to the chagrin of the dancers and ballet masters, Lorenzoni seems blissfully unworried about her deadline. She’s still fiddling with the cast, “replacing people she doesn’t like,” as one disheartened ballet master puts it. With time a-wasting, she stops the rehearsal cold to dump one guy who’s been out sick a lot and doesn’t seem to know his role, move an experienced member of the corps into his slot, and drop a top-level student—there aren’t enough male professionals in the company to go around—into the empty position. She hopes he has watched earlier rehearsals carefully from the back of the room and absorbed enough information to understand what he needs to do.
To the practiced eyes in the studio, that seems like a move pointedly ignoring the flaming forest in favor of two smoldering trees. And when the costume shop chief gets wind of the new cast member, a significantly larger fellow than the one he’s replacing, she raises another complication: “We don’t have a costume for him.”
The dancers not needed at the moment lounge or stretch sullenly on and behind the hundred-odd chairs set on risers at the side of the room for paying customers who will shortly file in for a peek. “$5 Friday” is an outreach program designed to offer the public a chance to sit in on late-stage studio rehearsals that are usually more presentable. This time their five bucks will get the customers a view of last minute on-the-job learning in a race against the clock that one ballet master deems “horrible.” Another, with a slow, knowing shake of the head, says, “It’s a big old mess.”
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