United Kingdom Prokofiev, Roméo et Juliette: Dancers of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Kirov St Petersburg Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (recorded), London Coliseum, London, 23.4.14. (JPr)
Juliet: Noelani Pantastico
Romeo: Lucien Postlewaite
Friar Laurence: Alexis Oliveira
Tybalt: Alvaro Prieto
Mercutio: George Oliveira
Benvolio: Mikio Kato
Lady Capulet: April Ball
The Nurse: Maude Sabourin
Choreography: Jean-Christophe Maillot
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Set: Ernest Pignon-Ernest
Costumes: Jérôme Kaplan
Lighting: Dominique Drillot
In the printed programme the introduction to this 1996 ballet of Shakespeare’s familiar tale begins ‘Based on the assumption that everyone is familiar with Romeo and Juliet, Jean-Christophe Maillot took a choreographic approach that avoids paraphrasing Shakespeare’s literary masterpiece that speaks for itself. Rather than retrace the rift between the Capulets and Montagues to its tragic denouement, the choreographer rewrites the play from an original perspective. The ballet plunges us into the depths of Friar Laurence’s soul, a man whose good intentions ultimately provoke the demise of the two lovers. Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo and Juliet is told through the flashbacks experienced by this distraught man of the cloth as he reflects on just how this tragic end came to be.’ Another section suggests ‘The syntax at the heart of Romeo and Juliet is clearly cinematographic. The ballet borrows a number of techniques from film and cinema, from flashbacks that draw us into Friar Laurence’s introspection to stills and slow motion. The performance is never displayed head-on, the dancers move along imaginary diagonal lines and never face the audience directly – just as an actor never looks into the camera.’
Jean-Christophe Maillot has directed Les Ballets de Monte Carlo since 1993 and this production – which has been adopted by a number of a number of international ballet companies – was originally choreographed for his home company in 1996. It uses a version of Prokofiev’s fabulous score that sounds very familiar but, indeed, the tale of the two young lovers is pared down somewhat with much plot detail and some characters excised, whilst the narrative remains easy to follow. There are surprisingly few longueurs and my mind only wandered near the end as Juliet revisits Friar Laurence and his Svengali-like influence over her becomes truly evident. In Act II – in an interesting sequence that needs to be seen to be believed – the Friar literally morphs into a puppet master and together with his almost ever-present two acolytes they retell the whole plot of Romeo and Juliet using puppetry. The Friar (an overwrought Alexis Oliveira) – who is forever wringing his hands or holding his head – is the first character we see in this ballet. He is there at the end when the extended sequence hints that the Friar’s interest in Juliet might extend beyond his role as her confessor and is shown holding her hand on her deathbed. Elsewhere, Maillot brings out the bawdiness and death-obsessed side to life in Shakespeare’s Verona that Nureyev also concentrates on in his Romeo and Juliet, the choreographic masterpiece that English National Ballet will revive on tour this autumn.
Jérôme Kaplan’s costumes are elegant and refined and do not hinder the dancers’ movement. For both the men and women there is an Italian Renaissance feel to what they have on that would enhance an even more traditional production. Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s set designs are very minimalist with several – mainly white – panels and slender ramps that differ from scene to scene to facilitate the balcony scene encounter between Romeo and Juliet or allow entrances and exits. Intriguingly during the Overture ‘main titles’ are projected onto one of these panels that together with the recorded music we heard enhanced the cinema feel of Maillot’s ballet. Dominique Drillot’s lighting is usually quite bright and mimics the Italian sunshine but the shape of a huge cross becomes a foreboding presence during the ballet’s final moments.
Maillot’s choreography was often fairly relentless and held my attention almost throughout. More traditional lyrical moments – especially between Romeo and Juliet – were interspersed with jerkier, occasionally repetitious, gymnastic movements elsewhere. There was much pirouetting or balances with legs extended forwards or back and arms were either gesticulating or held in angular shapes that I recall from Nijinsky’s The Afternoon of a Faun. Lady Capulet (the long-limbed April Ball) is given her moment in the spotlight to ham it up gloriously, kicking and slashing the air over her sorrow at the death of Tybalt and all the fight scenes – occasionally played out in slow motion – brought back memories of Jerome Robbins’ work for West Side Story.
Somehow Maillot’s ballet creates an effect through the honesty and artistry of the small company of talented dancers from Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. They seem fine, committed and, most importantly, instinctive dancers so they were able to create – within the bounds of the steps they were given – some quite believable characters. Maude Sabourin was a high-spirited Nurse with genuine concern for her charge; the tall, dome-headed, Alvaro Prieto was a suitably menacing Tybalt and George Oliveira (Mercutio) and Mikio Kato (Benvolio) threw themselves with great gusto into all their ‘bromance’ antics with Romeo. However without a credible pairing of young lovers at the heart of the story no version of Romeo and Juliet can hope to succeed and I thought the well-matched Noelani Pantastico (Juliet) and Lucien Postlewaite (Romeo) were quite splendid. For me they exhibited perfectly the sheer physical joy of a ‘first love’ situation and genuine grief at having to be parted … whether in life or by death.
I was glad to experience Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette once and although I may not rush to see it again I would be interested to welcome these accomplished dancers back in whatever they may choose to bring next time they are in the UK.