Romeo & Juliet
English National Ballet
5th January 2011
Watching Rudolf Nureyev’s production of Romeo & Juliet is the balletic equivalent of a dusty fist of wind in your face – life and death is summarily dealt with just as it was in the Italian Renaissance era. Try not to blink. As I write this, on 6th January, it is the anniversary of Nureyev’s own death.
The curtain rises (and later closes) on The Four Men of Destiny, playing dice – of all things; representation of Romeo ‘being born under an unlucky star.’ A jagged red back cloth drops to the floor and a cart is being towed away, piled high with those other souls who were unfortunate to share Romeo’s unlucky star. Just another day in Verona.
The scenes are changed swiftly and we find ourselves in a sun-baked Verona market square with the Capulet and Montague families simmering gently. Vadim Muntagirov is perfectly cast as Romeo; he has the long limbs and stately line but also a boyish softness which is evident in his small beaten jumps which are clean and neat. He flirts with Rosaline (lovely reading from Begoña Cao though she is dressed as though she’s just dropped in from one of The Sleeping Beauty diverts, such is the marked difference of her costume) who rejects him again, and this leads into the general bawdiness of the market square where the warring families taunt each other until the fighting begins. These scenes are quite suggestive in tone and the male costumes are embellished in all the wrong places.
Fabian Reimair cuts a dash as Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, and his run-ins with Benvolio (Max Westwell) are laced with contempt. In this production there are efforts to make Tybalt less one-dimensional, less of an out and out villain, and he has much more to do.
Juliet (Daria Klimentová) is playing tag with her friends (delightfully danced by all six but I’m going to mention Adela Ramírez for her style, Venus Villa for her jumps and Kei Akahoshi for her purity of line, even when upside down) when her parents arrive with Paris ( Daniel Kraus), whom they have chosen as a suitable husband. Juliet is portrayed as something of a rebel, quite prepared to go against her parent’s wishes if the mood suits her. She’s none too keen on the wedding dress Paris has delivered and resists all attempts to wear it.
When she first meets Paris, there is a lot of blinking from Klimentová, until the scene moves on and Juliet is dancing & playing around with Tybalt. The Pas de Quatre with Lord and Lady Capulet further cements Juliet’s rebellion, but she goes along with the plan eventually, even if it’s only for appearances sake.
These scenes are all painted in rich reds and dusky pinks with simple sets leaving room for the dancing – and there is much more of that in Nureyev’s production. Romeo is rejected again by Rosaline, and he and his friends are invited into the Capulet’s house for a masked ball. Here Tybalt has plenty to do, leading the dancing, and Reimair shows his excellent feet and sharp technique with aplomb.
The music from The Apprentice follows (though I have to credit my friend with that line); familiar as it is in ballet terms as the Dance of the Knights. It’s a heavily stylised way of moving; slow and deliberate. Again I noticed Kei Akahoshi in the side by side steps, arms raised, forearms touching.
The pivotal moment when Romeo meets Juliet, takes place during this ball, after she has danced with Paris. They pass each other in the crowd and by touching hands they are instantly captivated by one another. I found Juliet a little too knowing at this point, a little too expectant, and with a masked Romeo it’s hard to see his reaction. Romeo’s solo was encouraging but off balance in places. Vadim looks tired, not in a way that affects his jumps and turns but in a noticeable way that shapes his body during the transitions; being earth-bound after all.
If Muntagirov is to dance mainly Principal roles and lead the Company on opening night, I’d like to see that rank conferred on him very soon, to balance out the workload as befits a dancer carrying the show.
It’s not long before Mercutio (a late casting change due to injury and danced tonight by Juan Rodriguez) & Tybalt are baiting each other again. To begin with it is jokey, at least on the part of Mercutio, but Tybalt is no joker & when Romeo refuses to fight the atmosphere ramps up a gear in the background. The Wheel of Fortune dance takes over with most of the characters wear strips of blue fabric as masks and one dancer is carried aloft, banging what looked to be cymbals.
During the music from the balcony scene, Romeo has a lovely solo and Juliet waits with her nurse in the garden. Tybalt arrives quickly – a bit Mask of Zorro with the swords – which moves into a lovely Pas de Deux where Klimentová & Muntagirov excel in the very tricky lifts.
Act 11 opens back in the market square with Romeo mooning over Juliet and being teased by his friends. There are acrobats in this production wearing outfits hinting at Elite Syncopations, but again hideously embellished in all the wrong places. The dancers handle the steps very well.
In place of the Mandolin Dance, there is a Flag Dance, ably worked by the same acrobatic dancers with a real crackle of sails about them. Juliet’s nurse arrives and hands him (eventually) a letter from Juliet, to his evident delight. Muntagirov really has a completely organic, spontaneous reaction to reading the contents and follows this with more of his velvet, plush beaten jumps.
Romeo & Juliet meet and are married by Friar Lawrence. In this production they dance with the Friar; Juliet in high arabesques.
Back in the market square, the fighting leads to the death of Mercutio; at first because of the joking around (Romeo & his friends clap when he falls to the ground) no-one believes that he has been killed, and this humorous approach strips out some of the emotion of the scene. Plus, there is none of the really vicious sword combat seen in other productions; it’s more about acrobatics than drama. It’s not long before Tybalt follows Mercutio & again his death is dealt with quickly; there is no long drawn out anguish. Romeo is exiled to Mantua the following morning, and he and Juliet will spend only one night together.
Nureyev puts Juliet, rather than Lady Capulet, at the centre of the aftermath of Tybalt’s death. Juliet realises that her husband of a few hours is now the murderer of her cousin and she dances a solo where the steps seem to imply that she’s desperately struggling to wash away the imaginary stain of blood from her skin.
In Act 111, Juliet has a premonition of her wedding with death, and here a hideous skeleton jumps on top her on as she lies on the bed. Shakespeare wrote : “I’ll go to my wedding-bed; And death not Romeo, take my maidenhead.”
Juliet’s parents discuss the impending marriage with Paris, which doesn’t improve her mood. By the time Juliet reaches Friar Lawrence to ask for help, Paris is already there receiving a blessing. Eventually Juliet is given the potion and she dreams; Tybalt’s ghost comes back to haunt her with the dagger; likewise Mercutio with the potion. Confusion grips Juliet again and again – should she choose the dagger and kill herself or take the potion given to her by Friar Lawrence to make believe that she is dead ? Daria has some heart-rendingly beautiful fluttering footsteps in her solo as she dithers over the dagger.
Taking the potion, Juliet believes that she will be reunited with Romeo, as the plan is that Friar John will get word to Romeo that she is not dead, and he will return to carry her away from the family crypt at night.
Paris arrives with a host of musicians and dancers to herald his wedding, but after some time they find her dead. This scene is well danced and as they leave the stage, their trailing movements seem reversed, as though they are leaving backwards in a rewound film.
Benvolio has the task of telling Romeo that Juliet is dead, which is a scene nicely done as Juliet’s friends appear in Romeo’s dream and Juliet morphs into Benvolio to wake him up. Friar John has been attacked, robbed and killed on the road to Mantua with Friar Lawrence’s letter explaining what should have happened.
Romeo returns to Verona unaware that Juliet is not dead. He finds Paris grieving in the crypt beside her and kills him, and then poisons himself. When Juliet wakes, seemingly with a slight headache, she finds Romeo dead beside her and takes her own life with his dagger.
These final scenes are fairly whipped through but this production is a good introduction to Romeo & Juliet. Freed of the weight of dramatizing the story with endless marching and finger waving, the dancers are able to portray the story more fully, using ballet as their story telling tools.