National Ballet of Canada Takes a Fresh Look at “Romeo and Juliet”

Reviewed by Steven Woodruff

When Sergei Prokofiev composed his score for “Romeo and Juliet” in the late 1930’s he was swimming against the tide of then modern ballets which mostly had abandoned full-length story ballets in favor of shorter works. Originally a commission for the Kirov, they eventually backed out of the planned production over concerns that the complexities of the story couldn’t be carried by dance alone. There were also complaints about the music being complex, undanceable and contrary to the melodic and orchestral idioms that Russian dancers and audiences then found familiar. Harsh stuff for what ultimately turned out to be the most satisfying full length ballet music of the century, maybe any century.

Prokofiev’s music, which has always been the huge draw for creating new productions, has supported many versions both traditional and extreme. Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography, new for National Ballet of Canada in 2011, is a beautifully wrought work that takes a fresh look at the ballet, almost as if the landmark choreographies by Cranko, Macmillan, Nureyev, and others had never happened. In that sense, this “Romeo and Juliet” feels old fashioned, but old fashioned in a way that you might hope for from a Russian, Bolshoi trained dancer who continues to mine classical dance with spectacular and unexpected results.

Ratmansky with set and costume designer Richard Hudson have placed the action at the same time as Shakespeare’s original.  The architectural designs for the plaza, placed slightly askew and detailed with sharp linear patterns, are colorful and striking. The sets for the ball and banquet are reminiscent of Leonardo’s board for the Last Supper, while the dancers are richly wrapped in the ornate draping fabrics of Renaissance fashion.

// While Ratmansky acknowledges his roots in the classics he has also modernized his version with gestural movement that steers clear of the sometimes mechanical and deadening qualities of actual mime. It’s particularly effective and breathes real life into the secondary roles such as Friar Lawrence, the Nurse, and Lord and Lady Capulet.  But the major roles are full of dance life, especially the trio of Romeo and his fraternal pals, Mercutio and Benvolio. Those roles in Thursday’s performance were played by Guillaume Coté, Piotr Stanczyk, and Robert Stephan. As an ensemble, they created a natural bonhomie and sense of humor that lit up the first two acts.

 The choreography sticks close to the original designs of the music and story. You might question why the eerie, floating Minuet from Act I (Juliet and Paris) gets moved to the final act, and why the “Aubade” music goes missing entirely. In each case, those changes delete contrasts that feel better left embedded in the episodic flow of the music. In the final scene at the tomb as the warring families survey the carnage, Ratmansky suggests a kind of reconciliation as Lords Capulet and Montague embrace.  It felt like an ill-timed, even awkward deflection of the action which, in the final moments, has primed us for despair.

Coté and Elena Lobsanova originated the title characters as part of Canadian National Ballet’s 60th anniversary. Both roles are laced with complex steps that often unexpectedly turn or shift direction. Coté especially has a disarming charm and ease on stage. They were exceptional in the balcony scene which had a beautiful and seamless interplay of dance and romantic drama.

It remains to be seen whether this version will have the deep appeal of either of Macmillan’s or Cranko’s ballets. I hope to get a chance to see it again soon. There are certainly moments that set it apart and give us new, illuminating details about how to tell this story. The Knights dance from Act I is a real Knights (only) Dance, with swords. The tableau sequence in Act II that shows us how the friar’s plan is supposed to succeed is an ingenious split screen device that works beautifully. And the tomb scene delivers and even more crushing blow which you will have to see for yourself. Mr. Ratmansky has taken up the challenges of Shakespeare and Prokofiev and shaped a new ballet worthy of both. 

(The reviewed performance took place on July 10, 2014. The full orchestra was conducted by NBC Music Director David Briskin with local Los Angeles players. Do yourself a favor and sit down with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony’s complete recording of the ballet music available on Deutsche Grammophon. More than any other ballet score, this one lays out exceptional music that asks for detailed, oversized playing from all corners of the orchestra. It is a marvel.)

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