"Romeo and Juliet"
The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
March 12, 2013
By Denise Sum
copyright by Denise Sum 2013
Alexei Ratmansky's "Romeo and Juliet" returned to the Toronto stage just over a year after its world premiere. "Romeo and Juliet" provides what local audiences want - a compelling, full-length, narrative ballet that does not deviate too radically from the classical mould. Ratmansky's rendering of Shakespeare's well-known tragedy is loyal to the original story and setting, but also takes a fresh, modern stylistic approach. On its second run, the production looked stronger and more cohesive. While many Toronto balletgoers will miss the John Cranko version which the company has performed since 1964, Ratmansky's "Romeo and Juliet" is a work that is worth embracing.
Ratmansky's "Romeo and Juliet" does away with traditional mime and instead tells the story almost purely through steps -- and there are a lot of them. He is a choreographer who clearly understands his craft -- what comes across well in movement and what does not. His complex crowd scenes are a strength, highlighted in Acts I and II. They are busy, but not random. Sub-groups of dancers pick up different threads in Prokofiev's wonderful, layered music. He gives the corps dancers a lot of challenging choreography to work with.
Ratmansky capitalizes on every opportunity for dancing. In the scene in Juliet's bedroom with her nurse, we are used to seeing Lady Capulet give Juliet her dress to wear to the ball in the Cranko version. Juliet holds the dress up in front of the mirror and realizes in that moment that she is on the brink of adulthood. In Ratmansky's version, Juliet rehearses steps with her mother that she will later dance with Paris.There are also plenty of opportunities for the company's men to show off their bravura dancing, including a mischievous pas de trois for Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio and some high-flying fight scenes that are effectively grand allegro exercises with swords.
Details that add drama or shed light into characters' inner worlds are carefully thought out. When Romeo interacts with his friends, there are great moments of physical comedy and boyish pranks. At the same time, a pensive pause or a glance away show that Romeo is at a different stage than his peers. He begins his coming of age even before he meets Juliet. After their chance meeting at the ball, Juliet removes Romeo's mask. He drops to his knees and affectionately grasps at her skirt. The simple gesture reads volumes, showing that the pair has moved beyond flirtation. There are times when things do not work as well. For instance, a ballroom sequence where Romeo and Juliet are separated has them lifted in the air (him by his friends, her by Paris), looking listfully at one another from afar. Instead of drawing sighs from the audience, it drew laughs. It was a bit too much of a Hollywood romance cliché. Generally, though, the drama was genuine and unforced. The company looked cleaner and more comfortable in their roles.
The designs for this production are quite lovely, using mostly warm, fall hues like ochre, burgundy, and burnt orange. There is little by way of costumes distinguishing the House of Capulet and the House of Montague. This makes it a bit confusing, especially in the first scene, however it also gives a more natural look. Brilliant black and white costumes for masked commedia dell'arte entertainers in Act II's market scene stand out and give a sense of time and place. The set designs use false perspective effectively to give depth to the scenes. The sets are more streamlined and less lavish than those of many other productions, for a less cluttered feel. There were some minor technical glitches -- a door not opening on cue for Juliet to return to her room, some misplaced spotlights -- but hopefully these were dealt with in subsequent performances.
On opening night, the original cast were in excellent form, looking confident and well-rehearsed. As the star-crossed lovers, Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova were magnetic in their chemistry. Their first meeting at the ball was immediately intense. One could almost feel their hearts pounding as their chests heaved visibly at the sight of one another. The balcony pas de deux soared with unbridled passion, and they nailed the multiple intricate overhead lifts effortlessly. The gravitas of the final scene left an enduring impression. In this version, Romeo is not yet dead when Juliet wakes, and there is a heart-breaking brief final pas de deux.
Lobsanova has really grown into this role and looked better than ever here. Her movement does not just speak, but cries and whispers, such is the nuance and sensitivity she conveys through her dancing. At their secret marriage, her gaze is often tilted up towards the heavens, in awe and gratitude. Her acting was honest, her dancing pure. Côté was a poetic Romeo with powerful, expansive movement that mirrored each swell in Prokofiev's music.
There were some excellent performances in the supporting roles. Piotr Stanczyk used comic timing and quirky facial expressions to great effect as Mercutio. He brought weight to his death scene, wiping his own blood down Romeo's face before collapsing. As Tybalt, Jiří Jelínek, was convincingly malicious, spitting on Romeo when he pleaded to resolve things peacefully. Alejandra Perez-Gomez was a cool and distant Lady Capulet, but showed a hint of sympathy towards her daughter towards the end.
It was a huge step for the NBoC to secure a full-length work by a big name like Ratmansky, and the whole company seems to be energized by the experience. Next month, the company is taking the production on tour to Sadler Well's Theatre. Hopefully, the London tour will bring more international attention to the NBoC and will be a great experience for the dancers.
Photos: Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova in "Romeo and Juliet". Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Artists of the Ballet in "Romeo and Juliet". Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.