National Ballet of Canada
Romeo and Juliet
London, Sadler’s Wells
17 April 2013
Gallery of 20 Romeo and Juliet pictures by Dave Morgan
Alexei Ratmansky evidently decided that the freshest way to approach Romeo and Juliet was to forefront as many characters as possible rather than concentrating on the doomed lovers. In his 2011 production for the National Ballet of Canada, he fleshes out the roles of Juliet’s nurse, Friar Lawrence, Paris and the Capulet parents, all of whom hold themselves to blame for the joint suicides. Everybody gets the chance to dance.
The result is oddly old-fashioned – even more so than John Cranko’s version, which the Canadians had performed since 1964. The townspeople of Verona execute intricate set pieces, as if expecting applause at the end of each routine. Swordfights are carefully choreographed. Paris does a number on his wedding day rather like Hilarion, that other rejected suitor, being danced to death by batterie. Romeo hurtles around like a whirlwind, in love or in dire distress; Juliet rarely stands still. The slower Prokofiev music becomes, the more steps Ratmansky fits in, determined to prove that this is a tragedy for dancers, not actors.
He doesn’t define the small-scale society in which the love affair takes place. The locals aren’t colour-coded as Montague or Capulet supporters, though they take sides when fighting erupts. They gather in an empty piazza (no market stalls) in front of a stark, blood-red fort. Designs, by Richard Hudson, are based on Renaissance frescoes, as is the motley assortment of unbecoming costumes. The Capulet ballroom is impressive, with a groaning feast laid out upstage. But it’s odd that the Dance of the Knights involves prolonged swordplay: surely not at a coming-out party among friends and kinsmen. Juliet’s first party is a social disaster, though nobody seems to notice her behaviour with interloper Romeo. He and she run off with each other while Mercutio distracts the guests with his antics. When the pair return for a first pas de deux, every one is eating or exiting, till Tybalt goes berserk.
The lovers’ key encounter is slightly comic. Having locked eyes downstage, both are lifted high above the crowd – Juliet by Paris, Romeo by his two mates. Romeo makes the running in the ballroom pas de deux, flinging his head back in renversé turns, dizzy with infatuation. Guillaume Coté is an ardent, impulsive Romeo, one of the lads but also a dreamy poet, in love with love. Heather Ogden is a sweet, headstrong Juliet whose swift, clean dancing lacks any particular distinction. When the lovers reveal their feelings in the long balcony pas de deux, she is still sexually unawakened, dancing alongside him. They lie down in the moonlight as if on a beach, not a longed-for bed. Then, after their night together, she’s sad, not desperate at his departure. It’s hard to believe she is already contemplating suicide with a dagger.
The role of the four-poster bed is a curious one. It seems significant from the moment Juliet plays with her nurse on it, her childhood refuge. She returns to it after taking the potion and draws the curtains round her, prefiguring a mausoleum. But she and Romeo have ignored the bed, starting their post-nuptial pas de deux by walking away from it hand in hand, their relationship apparently unchanged. Ratmansky is so determined to avoid the passionate, acrobatic lifts that make the Cranko and MacMillan pas de deux heart-rending that he downplays what ballet can best express. And for all Hudson’s skill in enabling speedy scene-changes, that bed has to be awkwardly pushed off and the stage left dark before the final denouement can unfold.
Romeo dashes into the Capulet crypt in a flurry of virtuoso leaps and spins, hotfoot from exile. Coté shows that he is a changed man, no longer a giddy boy. But it seems inappropriate that, having drunk poison, he should be able to partner newly-awakened Juliet before collapsing. She had come-to with joy, believing Friar Lawrence’s prophesy, revealed earlier in a tableau with a happy outcome. She swiftly stabs herself to a drumroll. The bodies lie spreadeagled in a turquoise spotlight as their concerned parents arrive. Friar Lawrence is with them, beating his breast. In the gloom, it’s hard to discern who is pleading forgiveness from whom, though reconciliation is assured.
Ratmansky hasn’t driven a narrative arc through the three acts, moving from the outside world of Verona to the personal tragedy of the young lovers. The scenes are episodic, like his ‘Dances at a Gathering’ ballets for various companies. The corps has a lively time, with two harlots and a band of death’s-head mandolin dancers to animate their activities. Their rhythmical choreography picks out unusual inflections in Prokofiev’s familiar music. Mercutio (Piotr Stanczyk) and Benvolio (Robert Stephen) are irrepressible, bringing off lots of fun steps before Mercutio’s mocking death throes. Tybalt (Jiri Jelinik) is a raging psychopath, Lord Capulet (Etienne Lavigne) not much better. Paris and Friar Lawrence are given too much prominence: who really cares what they feel? Ogden’s Juliet isn’t specific enough as a girl-woman to be involving. We never see her make decisions: she is swept along by Romeo, misled by Friar Lawrence, unlucky in the timing of Romeo’s poison. And though she is ably partnered by Coté’s Romeo, their pas de deux leave no lasting impression. Nor, alas, does this production.