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Universal Ballet of Korea's Romeo and Juliet

by Robert Abrams
July 31, 2004
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023
212.875.5456

Universal Ballet of Korea's Romeo and Juliet

presented at
The New York State Theatre
Lincoln Center
New York, NY

Robert Abrams
July 31, 2004

Universal Ballet of Korea's Romeo and Juliet was filled with superb and sumptuous staging. Numerous passages of solo or small group dances were worth noting. The ballet also highlights aspects of the original story that often get overlooked. There were several instructive ways in which Universal's production contrasted with the styles of other ballet companies. Finally, a number of the sections within this ballet could be fruitfully expanded into new works.

A red velvet curtain emblazoned with a large coat of arms opens to reveal a stage richly filled with dancers as still as statues. The dancers were draped in sumptuous fabric. The set had depth, but also the kind of idealized perspective of a Renaissance drawing - the kind of drawing that suggests a place halfway between reality and imagination.

Rival gangs in gold and silver take the stage. The costumes had a look that read vaguely late medieval with an overlay of The East.

Unlike many ballets where the corps of dancers motionlessly frame the soloist, here crowds of dancers (far more than one usually sees on stage at once these days) used constant motion to frame the soloist. Sometimes there were two levels of framing, such as in a fight scene. The battling Capulets and Montagues are framed in the middle ground by Juliet's four maids who dance in a delicate line, and are also framed by the crowd of dancing party-goers in the background.

This kind of multi-layer framing could also be found in the Carnival scene, where there was a puppet stage within the main stage, and in the Juliet's bedroom scene, where Juliet's canopy bed gave the same impression of a stage within a stage.

Another scene (the evening carnival in Act II) that was very effective had scores of red plumed dancers moving in concert to frame the movements of Romeo and Juliet. The red plumed people also shadow Mercutio's death writhings in this scene, which was an effective way to use the entire staging to convey a single emotion and plot point.

In my previous experience, I understood Juliet's confinement to be simply the result of her parents: they won't let her marry a Montague, and if only they would listen to reason everything would be okay. In Universal's rendition, you can clearly see that Juliet's constraint is not just an individual matter. There is an entire social structure, densely linked together and excessively formal, that is fully capable of crushing her without even noticing her existence. The waves of heavily armored party-goers, each wave representing a clan, all wearing party hats encrusted with elaborate shrubbery conveys this idea visually. The costumes are matched by the elaborate formalism of the movements. The music is very heavy and bass oriented. This accretion of deference is sharply contrasted by Juliet's loose flowing slip of a dress and lack of a headdress. After Romeo and Juliet are married, you can see her set free from the crushing weight of her family in the choreographic choices, especially the multiple lifts.

There were stand out performances in solo or small group sections by several dancers. I liked Igor Soloviev's performance as Friar Laurance. His appealing movement quality consisted of grounded flowing movements like a slow wave.

Romeo's gang had a couple of small group numbers where they showed off spritely movements with lots of jumping. They were very rhythmic. Come to think of it, it is quite plausible in this production that Juliet actually fell in love with Romeo because she liked the way he danced, and disliked the plodding dance traditions of her own family.

The swordfights had good flow.

Seh-Yun Kim, who danced the role of Juliet, was a pleasure to watch. She was sure-footed, executing rapid footwork with confidence. She even jumped rope en pointe. She was effective in conveying both happiness and grief. The latter emotion was evident as she repeatedly reached up en pointe and then contracted down to express the way Tybalt's death at Romeo's (her own husband at this point) hand was impacting her. Her solo immediately after the scene in which she is beaten by her father is danced with energy and expression.

Chang-Gi Kim, as Mercutio, danced excellent multiple spins on one leg: the sort of bravura turn one expects at ABT.

Romeo and Juliet is one of those stories that everyone thinks they already know, so it is refreshing when a production brings to light an element one might have overlooked in the past. The main such element here was the simple fact that Romeo, already married to Juliet, kills Tybalt, Juliet's brother. I, and probably most other people, normally think of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet as tied up with the circumstances of their death: if only Romeo had gotten the Friar's message or had waited until the sleeping potion wore off, they would not have killed themselves unnecessarily, and could have run off to live happily ever after in the Italian equivalent of Upstate New York. The problem is that this understands the tragedy as an accident, which is not the way tragedy was understood in Greek drama. Tragedy is a flaw, in the person or the society or both, that can not be escaped. Romeo's killing of Tybalt is one strong indication that the tragedy is much deeper than just bad timing. Suppose Romeo had gotten the message and managed to run away with Juliet. Juliet would still be living with the man who killed her brother. How she could live with that, I can't imagine. It would, though, make for an interesting sequel.

This production also suggests that part of Juliet's problems may stem from her father, who to my eye was portrayed as an abusive parent. When her father tries to convince her to marry Paris, he drags her around her bedroom and whips her with her own jump rope.

While not the fault of Universal's production, I feel a need to chew out Friar Laurance for his really bad ideas about conflict resolution. Did he really think that marrying Romeo and Juliet in secret would resolve the feud and bring peace? Also, Romeo and Juliet get married only a day or two after meeting. Even if one posits that they are truly soul mates, it is still a bad idea, partly because one should always take a few dance lessons before marriage to make sure you and your intended can work together well, and in this case perhaps also because Friar Laurance is trying to counter the problems caused by one formality with another.

The elaborate costumes and large numbers of dancers on stage performing a story ballet contrasted with the regular tenant of the New York State Theatre, the New York City Ballet, which can fill the stage with dancers, but usually not quite as many at once, often uses spare costumes and is partial to much more contemporary styles of ballet. While Universal talks about itself as a classical dance company in the Russian tradition, my Russian guests, who enjoyed the performance, thought that both the dancing and the costumes were more contemporary than the ballets they are used to seeing in Russia, which often use simple costumes.

When I interviewed Julia Moon, Universal Ballet's General Director, back in June, she said that "I hope we can move people with the message that Romeo and Juliet is giving: to remind people that the things we have in common are greater than our differences. We need to work for a world of peace." This message was, in part, supposed to be conveyed by the epilogue in this production, where twelve couples enter in contemporary dress and take the flame from Romeo and Juliet's crypt out through the audience. I think that there is much in Universal Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet that can support moving people to action, but it is not likely to happen just by viewing the ballet. There are several reasons to predict this. First, narrative ballet can convey a general story line and is very good at an intensified portrayal of emotion, but is not so good at communicating specific details or complex ideas. Second, while Romeo and Juliet is a powerful story worth retelling, the suggested solutions embedded within the play itself are dubious at best. Sometimes people do have to die to get everyone else to wake up, but just as often the effect fades after a while, and I would hope that we have learned enough to do better. If Universal Ballet really wants to move people to action in order to create peace, they should develop educational programs that use the ballet as a starting point that is then supported by active discussions in schools and at the theatres.

A great work of art almost always contains the seeds of new work within it, and Universal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet is no exception. One such new work might focus on Juliet's conflict between loving Romeo for freeing her from her family while also hating him for killing her brother. This would also be a good time to remind everyone that a close reading of the original shows that Juliet had a sister named Susan who died during childhood.

If the intention in this production was really to suggest that Juliet's father was abusive, it would be interesting to see a ballet that portrays Juliet's home life growing up in more detail.

Finally, instead of simply placing the contemporary couples at the end of the ballet, in the new versions, it might be worth weaving them throughout the work, maybe even with some dialogue so the dancing doesn't have to worry about carrying all of the weight of the narrative.

Overall, I thought Universal Ballet of Korea's Romeo and Juliet was worth seeing. If you live in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, you still have a chance to see them. Universal Ballet will be performing in Los Angeles at the Kodak Theatre on August 6-8, 2004 (call 323-308-6363 for tickets), and in the San Francisco Bay Area at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley on August 13-15, 2004 (call 510-642-9988 for tickets). Otherwise, you will have to journey to Korea or wait for their next tour.

For more information about Universal Ballet go to:
www.universalballet.co.kr/english/index.asp or www.snowyworld.com/events/events.html for ticket information.

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