"Romeo and Juliet"
The Peter Schaufuss Ballet
Guests: Stephen Jefferies, Alban Lendorf, Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev
London Coliseum 11-17 July, 2011
by Judith Cruickshank
copyright 2011 by Judith Cruickshank
First, honour to Peter Schaufuss for resurrected this lovely ballet, first by showing a pas de deux at a gala in 1973 and then spending long hours reconstructing the entire ballet from an amateur film. He then had to persuade Frederick Ashton to give his permission for the ballet to be staged, not such an easy task as it might appear. And after a good deal of pleading, Ashton said yes.
Schaufuss re-staged it for the Royal Danish Ballet during his tenure as director, but once again, when he left the ballet went with him. Now the director of a company that bears his name, Schaufuss has staged a version for a small number of dancers -- the company lists just 15 dancers, and it was this that he brought to the London Coliseum. The drawing card for audiences however was the casting of the Bolshoi Ballet.s starry duo of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev as Shakespeare's doomed lovers.
It.s possible to stage a chamber version of Romeo and Juliet; Mark Morris managed to tell the story clearly with a small number of dancers. But doing it by simply cutting the ensemble dances from a ballet that was created with them means that you are left with an un-balanced evening -- for instance the only interval comes after the death of Tybalt. The Capulet ball is ludicrously under-attended, Verona a largely deserted city. The lack of so many characters means that important moments like the lovers -- first sight of each other go for nothing, while at other times a character is left stranded on the stage with nothing much to do until the music finishes.
Schaufuss has been quoted as saying that Ashton wanted a small scale version which concentrated on the lovers, but I cannot imagine that he would have done it this way -- or necessarily have used the Prokofiev score in that case. As the saying has it: if you want to go there I wouldn't start from here.
But in any case, I imagine many in the audience were there to see the two young Russian superstars. For Vasiliev it was to be his first Romeo. Osipova has already danced Juliet in the familiar version by Kenneth MacMillan, but this was her first encounter with Ashton's choreography. And in many ways their youth and their exceptional talent give them a head start.
However, Ashton's choreography is deceptive. It may seem to flow almost naturally, but most dancers will tell you that it's hard, really hard. Nor is it simply a matter of doing the steps. As one young soloist said recently; in Ashton's story ballets every step has a meaning, and that requires a particular emphasis or timing. Footwork for women must be both delicate and precise. Add to that the particular demands he makes on the use of the arms and torso and you quickly see that absorbing all this in just two weeks is a considerable task. On top of this, Vasiliev was dancing with an injured foot.
So how did they do? As a performance of Romeo and Juliet, pretty well, and they are both dancers of such quality that one is happy to see them in anything. But Ashton's style was missing, the headlong ecstatic rush of his balcony pas de deux was broken into phrases, the joyous camaraderie of the male pas de trois was lacking. Vasiliev seemed to be trying to fit the choreography to his particular talents, rather than bringing them to Ashton's vision of Romeo.
Osipova fared somewhat better, especially in the second half. But again, there was much detail missing, all of which is important in defining the characters and amplifying the story. As an example her pretty retirés were just that; a series of retirés beautifully executed. But, as Ashton explained to Healy the emphasis must be down, "Because you are saying no, no, no. I won't marry Paris."
The two Russians were not the only guests. Former Royal Ballet principal Stephen Jefferies was tempted out of retirement to play Lord Capulet. Always a remarkable theatrical performer (his Rudolph in MacMillan's ballet "Mayerling" was quite simply terrifying), the sense of drama on stage shot up by several degrees when he simply walked onto the stage.
The other guest was the Royal Danish Ballet's newest principal Alban Lendorf who played Mercutio. He's a really accomplished dancer with lots of style and a beautiful clean technique. He also showed a natural authority which suited the character and would have made even more impression in a fuller, more complete version of the ballet.
Alongside these world class dancers, it has to be admitted that the members of Schaufuss' own company failed to show to advantage. Mostly very young, my impression is that they are unaccustomed to appearing in such purely classical work. So one's heart went out to Robin Bernadet (Benvolio) as he struggled to keep up with the virtuoso competition of Lendorf and Vasiliev, not helped by the fact that he was perpetually one beat behind the other two.
Johan Christiansen seemingly won the hearts of several young women in the audience, his blond hair contrasting splendidly with the black and white of Tybalt's costume (a rather cheap looking version of the original), but his gestures were small and indistinct and much of the time he looked like a teenager in a strop rather than a dangerous swordsman defending his family's honour.
The orchestra, conducted by Graham Bond, deserves much praise and I was happy be spared the bombastic orchestration of so many of the ensembles. But I agree wholeheartedly with the writer who suggested that the original Prokofiev score used by Mark Morris would suit this version pf the ballet so much better.
On the whole I was glad to see Ashton's ballet again, even in this reduced version. It was good to see some excellent dancers and this beautiful choreography, even if one's heart ached for what was missing. It would be nice to think we might see it again complete in all its richness. And I'd like see this pair of lovers given the time to absorb the style and rise to its challenges -- I can't help thinking that Ashton would have wished so too.