Saturday, December 12, 2015

More Fair Than She: National Ballet of Canada’s Romeo and Juliet

Chelsy Meiss, first soloist for the National Ballet of Canada. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Last Saturday, Chelsy Meiss did the remarkable.

Dancing the lead role of Juliet in choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s 2011 reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers, the National Ballet of Canada soloist imparted that elusive thing that only rarely occurs in the theatre – a tingling sensation at the back of the neck.

It’s pretty much an invisible phenomenon. But the pleasurable shiver experienced as a result of a particularly vivid performance is a true occurrence. While not entirely proven by science, Autonomous Sensory Meridien Response, or ASMR, is backed by anecdotal evidence. When a buzz along the spine is prompted by art it generally signals that a feeling of euphoria has overwhelmed the spectator, resulting in a temporary state of awe. Except with Meiss that feeling tended to last the full three hours she was on the stage.

The Australian-born ballerina only this season was promoted to the level of soloist, a middle level of dance competence within the rigid hierarchy of the ballet which she attained after seven years struggling for recognition within the lower ranks. A red-haired dancer with an expressive port de bras, an energetic presence and stamina for days, Meiss got a boost from visiting choreographers like the Russian-born Ratmansky, a former Bolshoi director who is now artistic associate of New York’s American Ballet Theatre, and the Stuttgart Ballet’s Marco Goecke, both of whom pulled the ballerina out of obscurity to dance lead roles in their ballets.

Chelsy Meiss, waiting in the wings, in Romeo and Juliet.
Besides a razor-blade sharp technique, Meiss is a natural-born actress who animates her performances with a sense that she is fully in the role, whether it be the frenzied insect-like creature at the heart of Goecke’s remake of the 1911 Fokine ballet, Spectre de la Rose, which she danced in 2014 and again in September during the company’s Montreal performances, or Ratmansky’s full-blooded Juliet.

More experienced and established ballerinas usually dance the female lead. The role is typically reserved for artists who occupy the company’s highest position of principal dancer. During the National Ballet’s recent week-long reprise of Romeo and Juliet at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, principal dancers Elena Lobsanova, Sonia Rodriguez and Heather Ogden alternated in the role with Meiss, the only ballerina among them who danced above her rank. Her matinee show on December 5 is the focus here.

Ratmansky had handpicked Meiss to dance Juliet when he first created the Prokofiev-inspired work four years ago, a commission ordered by artistic director Karen Kain to commemorate the National’s 60th anniversary season. Not having heard his reasons why, it is easy to speculate that he was drawn to the 29-year-old’s buoyant artistry.

Meiss is Juliet incarnate, a fresh-faced ingénue who in the ballet goes from childish innocence to a womanly maturity. Meiss tends to portray her as an impulsive risk-taker who bubbles over with charm, making her hard to resist. Love is her new-found religion and she wholeheartedly devotes herself to it, bravely damning the consequences. It’s a credible performance that effortlessly draws the viewer in. In the first act, when she spies Romeo at the lavish party scene for the first time, you can actually feel her sharp inhalation of breath. Minutes later, when her arrogant and hot-headed cousin Tybalt (performed with panache by Brendan Saye, a dancer deserving of more appearances in the spotlight) uses the occasion to pick a fight with Romeo; Meiss’s Juliet remains flighty despite the gravity of the situation.

Darting about like a hummingbird, she seeks refuge in the company of her tittering female attendants. It’s a considered interpretation that shows the dancer taking her time to evolve the role naturalistically. Love changes, a theme Shakespeare’s original play makes clear, but it shouldn’t effect change so quickly as to appear unbelievable. During the iconic balcony scene which follows, Meiss deepens her interpretation. Riding on the gusts of passion that blow through Ratmansky’s ravishing pas de deux, the dancer throws herself with abandon into her partner’s arms, arching her back and garlanding her arms around his neck. Juliet grows in confidence.

In the second act, Meiss continues to combine technique and artistry to heighten the drama. Although straw-like slender, she endows Juliet with strength of character rooted in a refusal to cave to family pressure with regards to marriage. Her father, Lord Capulet (Jonathan Renna), slaps her face, kicks her to the floor and threatens to have her banished when she refuses to marry his choice of man for her, the hapless Paris (Giorgio Galli). And yet she won’t yield even as Lady Capulet (Alejandra Perez-Gomez) withdraws her love and her once-trusted Nurse (Rebekah Rimsay) sides with her parents against her.

Meiss, who until this point in the ballet, is guileless and coltish, a filly set loose in green meadows, lets a storm of emotions play across her face before withdrawing into resolute stillness. She is now in complete control of her fate, and with a sharp gesture so unlike the fluid movements of the preceding scenes she stops her Nurse encroaching on her further, coldly dismissing her. Juliet is a girl no longer.

In the third act, after an anguished solo that serves as the ballet equivalent of Juliet’s “My dismal scene I needs must act alone” soliloquy, she consumes the poison obtained from Friar Laurence (Tomas Schramek) and falls into a death-like sleep. When she awakens later in the family crypt, the languishing Romeo by her side, she immerses herself in a sorrow so profound that it infects those who are watching, sparking that involuntary tingle that lets you know you are watching something powerful.

A Juliet is nothing without her Romeo. Harrison James, dancing the role for the first time, is an ardent partner who helped make this performance of Romeo and Juliet a transporting experience. Like Meiss, the New Zealand-born dancer is a newly-minted soloist, promoted from the corps de ballet in June. The Kiwi first attracted attention last season when Kain, faced with an unprecedented number of injuries, was forced to cast the role of the Prince (in The Sleeping Beauty) from the bottom of the company pyramid.

A lyrical dancer, James distinguished himself with a pliant jump and good-natured demeanour that made him a Prince to fall for. As Romeo, he is even more accessibly desirable, an uninhibited leading man with a bounce in his step and easy smile on his handsome face. Infusing the role with youthful exuberance on top of technical control, James creates a palpable sense of character marked by skillful turns and soft-landing leaps. An attentive partner, he makes his Juliet shine. He matches her unbridled enthusiasm while displaying tenderness and concern, especially towards the end when destiny intrudes on his happiness.

As the title suggests, Romeo and Juliet is equally weighted as a showcase for both the male and female leads. But in many ways the masculine has the upper hand. As in the play, Romeo surrounds himself with a posse of testosterone-charged pals who egg him on in love and lust and who also rush to his defence when insulted by Tybalt, wielding swords. Full of personality, said friends are Benvolio and Mercutio and for the Dec. 5 matinee these roles were danced by Dylan Tedaldi and Francesco Gabriele Frola, respectively. Often played for comic relief, the friends serve to lighten the tragedy with clownish behaviour which Ramansky’s ballet, characterized by turbo-charged athleticism and acrobatic stunts, brings to the fore. Tedaldi, a dancer whose gutsy role plays and slither-fast dancing style is fast making him an audience favourite, portrays Benvolio as the classic good guy with a mischievous streak. Frola, another dancer to watch, enlivens Mercutio with springboard jumps that show off the Italian’s superb Cuban training. Like Meiss, the men in this performance pulled out all the stops. The effect was – you guessed it – electrifying.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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