Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Romeo, Romeo, wonderful are thou, Romeo

To Sadler's Wells, where I was expecting to be lulled into a gentle sleep by the patter of ballet shoes and some rather soporific symphonic music at Romeo and Juliet; I was in fact totally transfixed. The night of boredom anticipated dissipated as soon as the marvellous dancers took the stage, and it only got more interesting.

I confess that my critical vocabulary is rather limited when it comes to ballet, so what you are reading is the opinion of a layman fresh from his first evening of dance. This will please those who are similarly new to dance and were dreading a review full of pas de deux and rond de jambe. Rest assured, I have no idea what those are.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s performance of Prokofiev’s most famous ballet score had the benefit of a familiar story, which made the lack of words much easier to cope with. But it also had the most incredible dancers, conveying emotions in single steps that would require speeches to articulate, and a powerful score.

The dancing beautifully created moods, tensions, feelings. When Romeo (Robert Parker) danced to entice Juliet (Nao Sakuma), he put on his best peacock display, showing off his light feet and nimble moves. Juliet did both innocence, when shying from her suitor, Paris (Dominic Antonucci), and dreadful fear, when facing Lord Capulet’s wrath (David Morse) over her refusal of Paris.

There were several wonderful individual scenes. The ballroom scene, with music you’ll recognise as soon as you hear it, showed dozens of dancers as one, all with the same movements, perfectly expressing the ritual, restrained qualities of the occasion and yet thrilling the audience with its synchronicity. The market place scene, where a wedding’s celebrations overtake the whole stage, is exhilarating with the speed and complexity of the mandolin dance; it is breath-taking. The extraordinary costumes only make the mood grander.

The balcony scene is tender and cast in moonlight, with the dance verging from virginal to passionate, and its closing motif of the lovers’ hands unable to touch because of the height is redeployed in the final scene, in the crypt, when the dying Juliet lies across the tomb and can finally clasp Romeo’s hand.

I would complain that the third act is rather abbreviated, especially the crypt scene. Romeo sees Juliet and almost immediately kills himself, then Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo dead and almost immediately kills herself. There is very little time for the audience to recall or build up the requisite emotion. We feel rather robbed by the pair’s swift dispatch.

If economy sometimes paid off, it was particularly in Prokofiev’s score. Instead of dancing the whole ‘A plague on both your houses’ speech, Mercutio points to his Capulet killer Tybalt and the cello thunders, then to his Montague kinsman Romeo, and the cello thunders again. This was far more effective than a drawn out piece – it succinctly and terrifyingly carried across the sense of the curse.

I now confess myself a convert to the cause of ballet. If much other ballet is as moving, as well-danced and as fabulous to listen to as this Romeo and Juliet, then I – and you – have many happy evenings ahead.

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