Romeo as a dancer: Ballet Philippines reintroduces Joseph Gatti
Romeo and Juliet, from the point of view of a ballet dancer, is a different animal. “It’s emotionally draining, not just physically,” says American danseur Joseph Gatti. If we all knew Shakespeare’s classic by way of script or verse, the ballet performer’s challenge is something else: straddling emotion and technique, performing lifts and turns while staying faithfully in character, doing double duty as actor and dancer.
“It would be a dream role for any,” says Alice Reyes, Ballet Philippines founder and National Artist for Dance. “The demands are on all levels: technically, dramatically, emotionally.”
For its 49th season with Adam Sage as regisseur, Ballet Philippines is taking on this task as it brings back Reyes’ Romeo and Juliet, a jewel in the company’s vast and impressive repertoire. This marks its first restaging since 1988, and so the schedule, of course, was carefully planned. Those looking for a celebratory late-Valentine’s night — or those who missed the short run of its strong season opener Carmina Burana — would be happy to discover that Romeo and Juliet is getting the two-weekend run any Ballet Philippines production rightfully deserves. It opens on Feb. 15 and shows until the 24th at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).
Gatti, who has just landed in Manila the day we met, is Ballet Philippines’ principal guest artist playing Romeo opposite Denise Parungao. Also essaying the roles of the star-crossed lovers are Ronelson Yadao and Victor Maguad as Romeo and Monica Gana and Jemima Reyes as Juliet.
Reyes first encountered Gatti, as it happens, through YouTube. His first production with the company was Don Quixote staged in 2018. For this second visit, Gatti will also be conducting workshops, dealing with technique, health, and providing longevity for the body at Steps Dance Studio and Philippine High School for the Arts.
“Magaling siya,” says Reyes, “very generous in spirit.” Warwick-born and Orlando-raised, Gatti started dancing when he was 10 years young. His mother, who owned a studio in Jersey, would see him in the house watching Michael Jackson dance. “I was such a big fan,” he says. It would take only a few more years before ballet companies recognized his dancing prowess. Gatti became a principal dancer of Cincinnati Ballet and Corella Ballet, and the first soloist of Boston Ballet. Throughout this steady ascent in the world of dance, he has played a number of principal roles — including, among many, the Prince in Val Caniparoli’s The Nutcracker, Siegfried in Angel Corella’s Swan Lake, and Romeo in Victoria Morgan’s Romeo and Juliet.
“So what do you think of Alice’s version?” we ask over lunch. That it was “very musical” and “very dance-y” came up again and again, for the choreographer’s original intent was to “make the company dance. It’s not just Romeo and Juliet who’s dancing,” clarifies Reyes. “It’s everybody.” When she choreographed it in 1981, she was inspired by the grandness of the Bolshoi Ballet’s version and the openness of the style of Michael Smuin’s interpretation for the San Francisco Ballet. What took shape was Reyes’ first work in the classical ballet idiom. The piece, the grandness of it, would then be further accentuated through the production designs of another National Artist.
The late Salvador Bernal — “Badong,” to the theater world — had always been wanting to do an operatic production with Reyes. “He’s an opera designer at heart,” Reyes fondly recalls. Show after show, however, she would tell him “Badong, I’m a modern dancer; I can do without sets,” until an opportunity for grandiosity finally came. With Romeo and Juliet, Bernal lovingly constructed fair Verona: the charming bedroom where Juliet dreams, the magnificent halls where the lords and ladies dance, and the cavernous vault where the lovers meet. Bernal reimagined Shakespeare’s world, crowned and brought to life by the musical score of Sergei Prokofiev.
The young leads, Gatti and Parungao, understand that all this is legacy — the choreography, the costumes, the set, the music. Except for editing the pas de deux to fit the bodies of the dancers, the company let Romeo and Juliet remain as is, like how it was first envisioned. It now rests on the new performers to take on the role and make it their own.
“In dance, you cannot plan every emotion. You just have to give them the background. They have to take it over, give it out,” says Reyes. To be a good dancer — and this, the company recognizes — is also to be a great actor. For Parungao, the thrill of the task has to do with humanizing a character. “Juliet is a human being, I’m not trying to portray someone who’s like a fairy tale. Whatever she feels, most probably, I felt already. I just react and feel what I have to do,” she says.
For Gatti, what appears most challenging is the death scene, when Prokofiev’s music swells and the intensity of emotion builds up to the moment of shock and grief. “I look forward to the emotions that are going to come out of me, with my body language,” he shares. While mastery and precision define the dancer as he performs onstage, sometimes the moments of victory happen beyond it: when the feeling has poured and has been generously passed on. “When the audience feels it, and they come up to you after to say that was beautiful,” Gatti adds, “(that’s when) you know you did something right.”
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Ballet Philippines stages Romeo and Juliet on the following dates: Feb. 15, 8 p.m. (with a live orchestra); Feb. 16, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (with a live Orchestra); Feb. 17, 2 p.m.; Feb. 23, 7 p.m.; and Feb. 24, 2 p.m. Tickets are exclusively at Ticketworld (891-9999), CCP Box Office, or Ballet Philippines Box Office (551-1003) or online at www.ticketworld.com.ph as well as in all Ticketworld outlets.
For information, visit Ballet Philippines at www.ballet.ph/ or www.facebook.com/balletphilippines, @balletphilippines on Instagram, or balletph on YouTube.