Don’t Drink Poison

Thinking of Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet as completely obsolete is like saying German Expressionist cinema has no more value in a post Hitchcock world.  The latter could not have existed without the former and it is always interesting to revisit original works and old schools, observing where choreographers like Cranko and MacMillan would have drawn inspiration from. With that hat on I went to see the Mariinsky’s Romeo and Juliet on Thursday, also thinking back about how much I used to enjoy Galina Ulanova in the Bolshoi’s filmed version, a staple in my hometown’s art house cinemas as I was growing up.

While I side with those who think the Lavrovsky version feels like pantomime blended with dance, that the market scenes and the sword fighting are too tidy, the balcony pas de deux not passionate enough and the constant change of scenery & props distracting (do they really need all those tables and chairs at the Capulet’s ball when these are cleared away within minutes?), there are many things to admire here. The clearer narrative, for instance, which shows us the moment where Romeo learns of Juliet’s death – the MacMillan version always makes me doubt the logic of Romeo getting to Juliet’s tomb so quickly, poison-in-pocket – and an extended wedding ceremony where Romeo covers Juliet’s path with lilies, the young couple mirroring each other’s movements in the balances they take and in the display of their line, in readiness for life together.

First night reviews (such as this one by Mr. Clement Crisp), while critical of production values and dated text, have been unanimous about Vladimir Shklyarov’s ardent Romeo. I don’t think the reviews exaggerate Shklyarov’s abilities, having seen him dance last autumn in London, but I do suspect there’s more to it and that some of this Romeo outpour is connected with Lavrovsky’s shaping of his romantic hero, as again on Thursday it was Igor Kolb‘s performance which registered the most.

Kolb has been on my “to watch” list for sometime. Generally praised for his classicism and technical abilities, coupled with strong dramatic skills, he seems on a league of his own. During the Mariinsky tour to London he will be dancing Romeo and then princes Siegfried & Desiré. Not being able to treat myself to multiple performances due to the somewhat steep prices for this tour, and wishing to limit my exposure to the opening night Juliet, the controversial Alina Somova whom I intend to see in the Balanchine triple bill (perhaps the ideal habitat for her much discussed edgy line), I decided to go with Kolb’s date, more so as his Juliet was initially supposed to be the lovely Evgenia Obraztsova.

Igor Kolb and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Mariinsky's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Marc Haegeman /Mariinsky © Source: Mariinsky Theatre

Igor Kolb and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Mariinsky's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Marc Haegeman /Mariinsky © Source: Mariinsky Theatre

But the same unmerciful casting gods which did not allow Evgenia to be paired with Shklyarov in the London tour (she was cast and then withdrawn from his matinee performance of The Sleeping Beauty) also took her out of Kolb’s performance. Instead I saw soloist Irina Golub, a lovely dancer of expressive eyes, beautiful line and fast feet who does not make liberal use of extensions unlike some of her colleagues. Never trying to bend Lavrovsky’s regimental choreography, Golub dances Juliet understatedly and as true to form as I would imagine it to be, but while the style is pure it exposes the choreographer’s basic sketch of Juliet. Over and over again she is seen dancing the same steps, the dance not revealing much about her character. At least not until the final act when Juliet finally shows her determination to be with Romeo at any cost.

Kolb’s presence on the other hand is never understated and all the better for it. It is a shame that Lavrovsky did not give Romeo any dancing until the balcony pas de deux (which is more of a reserved, bodies apart kind, not the emotional powerhouse we know from MacMillan) and that he and pals Mercutio and Benvolio interact mostly through pantomime. Kolb is vivid in acting (though slightly over the top in the Mantua scene, which requires him to throw a tantrum), gentle and romantic with Irina’s Juliet yet with a powerful sense of the tragedy which is to unfold (flaring up those exotic eyes!); his dancing is fluid, with sharp lines and complete commitment to the steps – including a “leap of faith” collapse to the ground which made me fear for his safety and wonder how amazing he must be in Albrecht’s variation- his are the evening’s most instense moments. I can’t wait to see him again – hopefully paired with Obraztsova – in The Sleeping Beauty next week.

Mariinskys Romeo & Juliet. Source: Mariinsky Theatre. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Mariinsky's Romeo & Juliet. Source: Mariinsky Theatre. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Choreographic shortcomings aside, it is a delight to see the stylish work of the Mariinsky corps and to hear the superb orchestra under Gruzin’s conducting (the brass never sounds that sharp in the Royal Ballet’s performances). The costumes have been much criticized in the press and true, Tybalt is almost a cartoon character lost in a ballet and Lady Capulet shifts from intense grief over her nephew’s death to complete inertia upon discovering her daughter’s. But neither of these things, nor the ugly polyester wigs worn by some of the men, spoiled my enjoyment of this vintage ballet classic, which still has so much to say about Shakespeare’s timeless story.

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Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. Her favorite Ratmansky ballets are: The Little Humpbacked Horse, Russian Seasons, Cinderella and The Shostakovich Trilogy. She is always ready to chase new Ratmanskys around the globe. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, translating and interpreting.

4 Comments

  • July 6, 2010

    Beep Beep

    Nice pictures, i wonder what real poison tastes like?

  • [...] Romeo in Lavrovsky’s version of Romeo & Juliet. With Yevgenia Obraztsova. Links to parts [1] and [...]

  • August 9, 2009

    Emilia

    Hello Anna,

    Thanks for your comment. You are right! On closer investigation they are not married/neither are them a couple (have corrected the post!), thanks for pointing this out, though I still wish they would have been paired, have you ever seen the video of Fokine’s Carnaval with them? It’s so lovely.

    The Rest is Noise sounds really interesting, I shall pick it up. I am fascinated with the way Prokofiev’s score took a life of its own and that even choreographers who have revisited his original work, weaving the concept of a “happy ending” in some shape or form (such as Mark Morris), have had mixed results. I guess Shakespeare must prevail after all!

    E.

  • August 9, 2009

    Anna

    I wish I’d been there! I saw Kolb in Spectre de la Rose two years ago, but to see him in a full-length must be divine.

    Your first paragraph is interesting — context is so important! It seems like for many Westerners the MacMillan version has become the definitive R&J (the Cranko being so rarely performed, sadly) so watching the Lavrosky can be jarring (let alone the new Bolshoi staging!)

    I always forget how new Romeo & Juliet is compared to the other classics. For the Petipas and Romantic ballets, we don’t have a definitive, “original” version, despite the recent Kirov reconstructions, but for R&J we do.

    I was reading “The Rest is Noise” by Alex Ross and in it he mentions R&S’s difficult birth. Apparently Prokofiev disliked the tragic ending of the play and originally wrote a happy ending which was rejected. He went through something like three versions before the score was accepted by the authorities, and he disliked the end product. And of course all this occurred during a stressful period of the Soviet artistic community (denunciations of “degenerate” artists).

    P.S. Are Obratsova and Shklyarov really married? Someone (a regular and reliable poster) on BalletTalk mentioned discovering this year that they actually aren’t — it was a mistake in that Russian TV broadcast that has been repeated. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking ;)