Highs and Lows in Canada National Ballet’s Romeo

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev/Ratmansky, Romeo and Juliet: Dancers of the National Ballet of Canada, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / David Briskin (conductor), Sadler’s Wells, London, 17.4.2013. (JPr)

Juliet: Heather Ogden
Romeo: Guillaume Côté
Mercutio: Piotr Stanczyk
Tybalt: Jiří Jelinek
Nurse: Lorna Geddes
Friar Lawrence: Peter Ottmann
Lord Capulet: Etienne Lavigne
Paris: Patrick Lavoie
Benvolio: Robert Stephen
Lady Capulet: Alejandra Perez-Gomez
Duke of Verona: Jonathan Renna

Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Sets and Costumes: Richard Hudson
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton

Artists of the Ballet in Romeo and Juliet photo by Bruce Zinger
Artists of the Ballet in Romeo and Juliet photo by Bruce Zinger

It was in 1964 that founder and artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, the late Celia Franca (a Londoner whose surname was originally Franks), presented John Cranko’s version of Romeo and Juliet. It established an international identity for the emerging company and was performed a great number of times over subsequent years. However in 2011, the current artistic director, Karen Kain, made a bold decision to scrap it in favour of a new production by one of today’s leading choreographers, Alexei Ratmansky, to celebrate the National Ballet’s 60th anniversary. In his career Ratmansky danced both Romeo and Mercutio, is the former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet and currently artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre. I understand he has done much better work than this and I look forward to seeing some of it in the future.

I really wanted to enjoy this Romeo and Juliet more than I did and I now temper my comments because I believe it was all probably devised for a much bigger stage than Sadler’s Wells, where it all appeared rather too cramped. This was particularly so in the crowd scenes when a basic corps de ballet of eight men and eight women created little atmosphere. Richard Hudson’s two-dimensional set was of little help with its often-present Kremlin-red fortress catching the audience’s eye in the background. Ratmansky’s idea was for ‘a more holistic Renaissance look’ so there is no ‘colour coding’ (as he calls it) of the Montagues and Capulets – however this made it difficult to appreciate at times who was actually fighting whom. Hudson’s brightly coloured period costumes were of little help in this, with the men and women often looking like the playing cards out of Alice in Wonderland – a ballet currently in the company’s repertory. If I wasn’t thinking about Lewis Carroll, then at times my thoughts turned to Peter Breughel or Disney.

I like the way Ratmansky allowed some reality to intrude into his staging if you looked at the periphery of the stage; he is not showing us a healthy society and a female guest swoons before entering the Capulets’ ball, there is the brief appearance of a leper in Act II and someone is also shown suffering from a coughing fit. He also dwells on the grief of a young girl for her dead lover and there is a vignette of a boy breaking up with the object of his affection, she becomes very tearful and they eventually become reconciled. However, these are all ‘blink and you miss them’ moments. None of this is really shown centre-stage and though it hints at the realism Nureyev brought to the story in his memorable 1977 Romeo and Juliet for London Festival Ballet (still in English National Ballet’s repertoire), his version was fully thought-through in its bawdiness, bustling Verona street-life, and pervading sense that we are all in the hands of fate. Here – possibly because his audience would accept nothing else – Ratmansky gives us a ‘crowd-pleaser’ with all the familiar Romeo and Juliet ballet highlights (the antics of Benvolio, Mercutio and the lovelorn Romeo, Juliet at play with her Nurse, the lavish ball, the ‘balcony scene’, Mercutio’s death at the hands of Tybalt and Romeo’s leave-taking etc.) stitched together as best as possible because of limited resources to work with.

In the end the most developed character we get to see is (surprisingly) Friar Lawrence. He seems a commentator throughout on what is happening. At first he is reluctant to marry a couple from two feuding families — he mimes this with knuckles against knuckles. The Friar sees the obvious love Romeo and Juliet have for each other and then relents because he believes that their union could heal this rift. He has another crisis of conscience in Act III about further help for Juliet, and in the Capulet vault he reappears at the end – obviously having failed to get a message about Juliet’s fake death to Romeo – and visibly berates himself for having brought about the tragedy.

By this ending things have improved somewhat and all throughout Act III there are hints at what a good production this could have been. It culminates in the crypt scene, Romeo drinks some poison when he sees the lifeless Juliet but she awakens in time to see his life ebbing away. Ratmansky therefore shows her getting stronger as he gets weaker and weaker. Juliet stabs herself, and with the discovery of the young lovers dead in each other’s arms, Lord Capulet kneels to beg his Lady’s forgiveness; the blame is all his and only she can forgive him. In a powerful final image she places a hand on his head.

Ratmansky’s choreography thankfully lacks some of Nureyev’s elaborate fussiness but doesn’t really bring us much we have not seen before. He says how he ‘worked especially hard on the upper body to draw out the expressiveness of the music’ but this seems to consist solely of lunging or sweeping arm movements that we see over-and-over again. Like the Nureyev version (that Ratmansky says ‘he liked best of all’) in his own crowd scenes nobody seems to stand still and it can all seem a little frantic. It is at its best when the stage clears and only two or three individuals are dancing more intimately.

Two really outstanding leading dancers might have raised what passion there was to a higher level but (in the first of a few different casts) Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden (who I understand are a couple in real-life) were good enough as Romeo and Juliet … but little more. Côté is a pleasant enough danseur noble who makes elegant lines, has assured spins and soft landings and Ogden’s dancing is pliable and fluid. However together they showed surprisingly little chemistry, ardour or any of the impetuousness of teenagers in love for the first time. The dancer that caught my eye most was Piotr Stanczyk’s Mercutio; he was a far more exciting, dramatic and charismatic dancer than Côté. Stanczyk’s looks and physique may not make him an obvious Romeo but I wondered more and more while he was on stage what he could have made of the role. He certainly made Mercutio’s death scene more disturbing than most I have seen. Robert Stephen was an engaging Benvolio, Jiří Jelinek a suitably menacing Tybalt, Lorna Geddes was good value as the over-protective Nurse but few of the remaining dancers got much opportunity to do other than mime a lot and emote in a ‘chewing the scenery’ manner. An exception was Peter Ottmann who really did inhabit the role of Friar Lawrence, the catalyst of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic fate, possibly more than the rest of this staging deserved.

There are few ballet scores as grandly Russian, yet impressionistic and expressionistic, as Prokofiev’s for Romeo and Juliet, and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under National Ballet of Canada’s music director, David Briskin, did not seem up to the task at the beginning. But like Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography, it all ended much better than it had started.

Jim Pritchard

For more about current and forthcoming dance at Sadler’s Wells go to www.sadlerswells.com.