“Romeo and Juliet”
National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
Nov. 16, 2011
by Denise Sum
copyright 2011 by Denise Sum
The National Ballet of Canada opened their 60th anniversary season with the world premiere of a new “Romeo and Juliet” by Alexei Ratmansky. The decision to commission a new version was somewhat of a gamble. The company has been performing John Cranko’s interpretation to adoring audiences since 1964. The Cranko version is a signature piece for the NBoC and has played an important role in its history. However, Ratmansky is a big name choreographer and one hopes that this new production will bring renewed international attention to the NBoC.
Ratmansky's choregraphy is busy and dizzying at times, but the steps are flowing and naturalistic, making them feel spontaneous. There are deep backbends, legs in parallel, swinging hips and the like interspersed within a classical frame. His village scenes are dynamic, especially the carnival in act II. The amped up fight scenes are an opportunity for flashy allegro steps (the company even brought in a fight coach, Steve Wilcher). One only wishes that Ratmansky's choreography echoed the leitmotifs in Prokofiev's score. Instead, it looks as though he set out to see if he could create a full length work without using a step more than once.
The ballroom scene where the lovers first meet was well thought out and timed. The progression from hesitant promenades to grand, sweeping lifts mirrors a natural development of trust and affection. The balcony pas de deux is passionate and tender as it should be. It starts differently -- Juliet drops a flower and Romeo, hiding below, tosses it back to her. There are some great moments, including a dramatic sequence where Juliet goes from sitting on the ground immediately to a swallow lift. Still, there are just too many steps. In MacMillan's version, the bars leading up to the kiss are spine-tingling in their simplicity and anticipation. That is missing here and the kiss is almost hurried.
Some of the most unique additions come in Act III. Before Juliet goes to Friar Lawrence to ask for help, there is a brief dream sequence where she is reunited with Romeo. When she sees the Friar, a scene enacting behind a scrim explains what the potion will do.
The opening night performance truly belonged to first soloist Elena Lobsanova. Hers was a compelling, soulful rendering of this iconic, youthful role. In her first scene, with her nurse, she was girlish, playful, and a bit mischievous. In the bedroom pas de deux, she danced with complete abandon. Finally, in the last moments she showed us the fortitude and resolve of a woman transformed by love. Technically, she was "on" right from the start. She danced with lightness and precision. Her style is understated, even when executing the most bravura of steps. A spill during the balcony pas de deux could not take away from a near flawless performance.
Her Romeo was Guillaume Côté, NBoC's resident danseur noble. Romeo probably has the most dancing. Between the variations (the ballet actually opens with a variation for Romeo), pas de deux, sword fights, and dances with Mercutio and Benvolio, the role really tests one's stamina. Côté met the challenge easily and was an ardent partner to Lobsanova. He brought a lovely expansiveness to the steps. His lines are endless and he can pirouette and then stop in arabesque on a dime, such is the degree of control he has.
Many dancers reprised their roles from Cranko’s version. Piotr Stancyzk was a volatile Mercutio and used the role to demonstrate a wicked sense of humour. Peter Ottmann played an empathetic Friar Lawrence. Although it is a minor role, his despair in the final scene was deeply felt. Tybalt was danced by Jiri Jelinek, whose death scene was very dramatic. He actually lunged forward and tried to strangle Romeo.
The set and costume design by Richard Hudson are inspired by Verona in the early Renaissance Period. Even the stage curtain was changed for the production, a rich hanging tapestry. The sets are more austere than what audiences have been used to. There is a simple, boxy terracotta castle and little by way of extra props or embellishments. The costumes are all sumptuous fabrics and rich, warm colors. With the exception of comically large fur cuffs for the Duke of Verona and a tacky, Von Rothbart-esque black and white dress for Lady Montague, the designs are quite striking.
Ratmansky's "Romeo and Juliet", while uneven, has a fresh look and some creative revisions. Is it better than Cranko's version or just different? Hard to say. It is an unfair question, but one that is very difficult to avoid.
Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova in "Romeo and Juliet". Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova in "Romeo and Juliet". Photo by Christopher Wahl.