New York Times ballet critic Alastair Macaulay has been fulsome in his praise for Pacific Northwest Ballet during their short New York tour, but in a backhanded way, as if Seattle were a kind of cultural amber: “longtime dancegoers in the audience must have felt a sense of recognition: ‘This is how Balanchine used to be,'” he writes, adding later: “this troupe leads us back into the nature of Balanchine’s classicism,” and picking out Carla Körbes as a leading national exponent.
I have no quarrel with Macaulay regarding his ear: “Pacific Northwest Ballet’s orchestra has long been superior to those we hear for New York’s resident ballet troupes, and in Emil de Cou it probably has America’s finest ballet conductor,” he says in the same notice.
But criticism descends to crochet when he complains that the Balanchine triple bill got just one performance, while PNB “squandered three performances of their short, prestigious New York visit with this trivial ‘Roméo’.”
Trivial? (“Squiggles” is never good, either. It could be worse, Claude Wampler’s new show gets: “Everything about this piece is terrible: poorly conceived, poorly executed.”) On what grounds? Well, it appears, Macaulay has seen Romeo and Juliet before, and he knows how the story ought to go. He’s seen “at least 10 stagings of Shakespeare’s actual play, as well as two operatic versions and 10 dance versions.”
Is the note from Mr. Macaulay really, “Please do not deviate from my understanding of a classic story”? This feels faintly ridiculous from a critic at the New York Times.
Macaulay is so exercised at what he views as choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot’s liberties that he actually types the words: “by making Romeo and Juliet the most sincere and innocent people in the ballet….” I feel certain that’s not something we can lay at Maillot’s doorstep, the innocence and sincerity of Romeo and Juliet.
Thence, Macaulay quibbles with virtually every decision that Maillot has made, without betraying any evidence that he’s interested in the choreographer’s point of view. (You don’t have to agree than a concept works, but it’s worth exploring it in a review.) In Maillot’s telling Friar Laurence is a sort of demiurge — the priest as synechdoche for his god, whose actions in the world are constrained by that world.
“Nothing is odder about this staging than the two male acolytes who attend and support him,” concludes Macaulay, suggesting that he’s never been to a Catholic mass. Or Italy: Lady Capulet and Rosalind, he claims, “are almost the only people in Verona not obsessed by breasts. Juliet bares hers to the Nurse, and Mercutio, Benvolio and Tybalt are forever planting their palms on those of various Veronese townswomen.”
Juliet is flaunting her grown-upness, and once feels less than obsessive. As for the verisimilitude of Italian teenagers copping feels, I’ll leave that fight to Macaulay. It’s been my observation that it’s not restricted to teenagers.
Later, Macaulay finds Lady Capulet’s dance following the death of Tybalt “artful histrionics” — without inquiring as to whether the manipulative narcissist in question (she is here, but perhaps it’s not allowed) would behave in just that way.
Macaulay writes a great many reviews under deadline, and knows a great deal about ballet; but he’s not immune from pernicious habits of mind that warp his critical observations (it’s hard to clearly see something you imagine you don’t care for). He’s scrupulous in his fairness to the dancers of PNB, but it’s unfortunate he couldn’t engage with Maillot’s work on a less trivial level.