Royal Swedish Ballet
Juliet & Romeo
London, Sadler’s Wells
25 September 2014
Gallery of (first cast) pictures by Dave Morgan
Part of the Northern Light season at Sadler’s Wells
The Northern Light season of works by choreographers from the five Nordic nations continues with the first UK performance from Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Ballet in two decades. The company commissioned internationally renowned choreographer Mats Ek to create a new version of Romeo and Juliet last year to celebrate its 240th anniversary, and the production makes its UK debut at Sadler’s Wells this week.
Ek is known for his expressive modern reworkings of classic ballets; his Giselle, danced in soft shoes and set in a psychiatric ward, and his sexy, cigar-smoking Carmen with its innovative flashback structure revitalized two well-known and well-worn narratives. The tragic narrative of two young star-crossed lovers whose relationship is forced into fast-forward by family maneuverings and prevailing social circumstance is perhaps the most familiar and timeworn of all – can Ek breathe new life into the tale?
The answer is a partial yes. The curtain opens on a network of zig-zag climbing walls; slid into different positions on stage these are the only set and transform from city streets into bedrooms, ballrooms and (of course) a balcony. This minimalist approach to set design throws the focus onto the choreography; it also allows for some exciting entrances and exits, as the performers scramble over walls, popping up and dropping down as the action demands.
Ek’s choreography, for both groups and individuals, is animated and detailed. Anton Valdbauer danced a superbly supple Romeo on the second night, oozing over those stage walls and down into the morning mists with an earthy fluidity that suits his romantic dreamer’s role. As comfortable with expressive contemporary gesture as with classical technique, Valdbauer also boasts the most flexible shoulders I recall seeing on a British stage.
His Juliet is the elfin Rena Narumi, a springy ball of youthful energy who bounces across the stage in a sunshine-yellow dress, hiding under the skirts of her Nurse (Jenny Nilson) when her parents arrive to introduce her to her arranged groom Paris (Dawid Kupinski). Paris is danced here as a creepily over-eager lover, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his bride-to-be is terrified enough of the thought of marriage to him to hide behind each of her parents in turn; he hovers threateningly over her prone body before descending into an unwanted embrace that elicits sympathy only for Juliet and disgust for the adults in the room.
If Valbauer and Narumi combine dreamy romance and vivacious energy in their performances; it’s Luca Vetere’s Mercutio who brings the leather-clad swagger to the stage. Dressed in trousers Jim Morrison might consider a little too racy, he’s all blustering strut and boisterous joshing, vaulting over Romeo and dressing up in drag for the Capulet’s ball. Vetere gives a fine, animalistic performance as the unreconstructed Mercutio – the kind of character who gets all the best lines, or the best solos, in a stage production but who would be an egotistical nightmare to deal with in real life.
The corps and soloists must be commended on their upper-body work. High extensions and 200-degree splits are par for the course in UK classical companies, but sometimes at the expense of an expressive torso. The Royal Swedish dancers clearly devote as much time in rehearsal to their arms and spines as they do to their legs, and the result is a whole-body motion that is a delight to watch, especially with the company moving in ensemble, which happens often.
Things come a little unglued in the second act, and I wonder if Ek ran short of time in the studio. Key elements in the narrative – the death of Mercutio, Romeo’s revenge on Tybalt, and the final deaths of the lovers – are rushed to an almost unseemly degree, and given little cause or context. Juliet’s death, in particular, seems to come out of nowhere – rather than plotting to get out of a bigamous marriage to Paris with a draught that gives the appearance of death, she simply collapses at the end of a family quarrel. As Romeo arrived on stage to mourn a ghostly version of his bride, I was still struggling to understand who was dead and why, to a distracting extent that rendered the end of the ballet unmoving.
Some purists will dislike Ek’s uprooting of Prokofiev’s iconic score in favour of selections by Tchaikovsky – so instead of the theme from The Apprentice as the Montagues and Capulets battle on the city streets, we get the Duke speed-skating to Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor. Some of the selections work well; others are disorientating and at times lack the emotional punch of Prokofiev’s music.
A mixed bag, then: Ek’s first act is undeniably enjoyable and absorbing; his second act too rushed and confused to be really gripping. As a company, however, the Royal Swedish Ballet are well worth watching – so pick up a ticket if you can and grab a stiff gin in the interval.