Romeo and Juliet is probably one of the best known tragic love stories in the world and the doomed tale of the young lovers from the warring houses of Montague and Capulet needs no introduction here. This is also a story that has been re-told and re-imagined in so many ways over the centuries in so many art media as well as being the source material for so many other stories. This new ballet by Northern Ballet which is being premiered tonight in Edinburgh is yet another re-imagining of this classic tale.
I have to admit here right at the start of this review that I had deliberately done no background research on this production so that I was just watching this performance with fresh eyes. I also have to admit that I was expecting to see a very traditional ballet with period costumes and big period set pieces, so it was a bit of a surprise to me that this is not what this production is at all.
The first thing that strikes you with this production is the set. Designed by internationally renowned designer Ernest Pignon-Ernest, the set is a very simple series of blank walls with an angled runway. This is stark minimalism at its ultimate end. Any colour comes from lighting by equally acclaimed designer Dominique Drillot. There is nothing else on stage and this blank canvas may focus the audience entirely on the dancers, but for me it was too stark and took away all the visual references that I was expecting in this story...visual references such as the classic balcony scene. It is unfair to comment on a set without knowing the design brief that was being worked to, but the absolute blank canvas of a set for me also took many visual references away from the dancers.
Costume design for this production is by Jerome Kaplan and these are also at times minimal in design and are in keeping with the overall visuals of the production. As I said though, I was expecting a big period costume production and with some very physically similar dancers on stage at any time, more identifiable costumes would have made the story at times easier for me to follow.
Dancewise, this production is also re-imagined and is a blend of classical and modern dance. If Northern Ballet has one great strength it is the internationally high quality of its dancers, and Martha Leebolt (Juliet) is one of the world's best classical dancers (winner of the 2010 Outstanding Female Performer - classical award). Martha at times just seems weightless on stage and makes the very difficult look effortless. This is also a very dramatic role for her.
Romeo is performed tonight by Giuliano Contadini, and all the technical abilities that you would expect for someone in this role are there, but there is something missing on stage at times between Romeo and Juliet. This is one of the greatest love stories in the world, but somehow that love story is not at times coming out. Perhaps the clinical starkness of the set is contributing to a bit of the coldness between them...I do not know the answer to this one.
Antoinette Brooks-Daw and Isaac Lee-Baker also put in very stong and dramatic performances as The Nurse and Friar Lawrence, and it is Isaac Lee-Baker who has the task of holding the story together though all of its three acts. He is on stage at the very beginning and there in some of the final tragic scenes.
Sometimes, it is not the leading performers who steal the stage, and for the male dancers tonight, Javier Torres as Tybalt does that. While technically probably no more competent than the other male dancers, there is something about his presence on stage that makes you notice him more than the others. Somehow, Javier Torres fills that stage and, wherever he is, you notice him.
The one thing that is not re-imagined in this performance though is the wonderful music of Sergei Prokofiev. Beautiful music that lets a choreographer (in this case Jean-Christophe Maillot) re-interpret a piece of work without losing the core of it.
Did I enjoy this re-working of a classic tale? To be honest, I am still making my mind up about that. This production is nothing like I was expecting to see and that took a while to adjust to. The sets were too stark and clinical for me, but the quality of the performances on stage was never in doubt. There is a lot of almost abstract symbolism in the choreography and some elements are closer to modern dance than classical ballet and I was adjusting to that as the performance went on. Knowing what to expect from a second watching of this performance, I suspect I would be writing an entirely different review as this one is honestly coloured by getting something completely different from what I expected. Is that a bad thing? No, just different, and it is unfair to judge something based on your own preconceptions of what a performance will be like. Sometimes different just takes a while adjusting to. New is always a bold thing to do and present on stage.
Review by Tom King