One of the highlights of National Ballet of Canada’s 60th anniversary season is a gorgeous new version of Romeo and Juliet by Alexei Ratmansky. Amongst the hottest classical choreographers in the world right now, Ratmansky has been churning out one success after another: for ABT a new Nutcracker and a short piece, Dumbarton, and for the Paris Opera Ballet a lovely Psyché, which we were lucky to catch a couple of months ago. With these commissions and many others, Ratmansky continues to (almost single-handedly) revitalize the genre of narrative ballet and show how classical vocabulary can look up to date when inventive steps are combined with clever ideas.
With Romeo & Juliet, Ratmansky had his work cut out for him: his new production for NBC replaces John Cranko’s, which had been in repertory and well loved since 1964, while Kenneth MacMillan’s still reigns supreme at the Royal Ballet and ABT. Thus, with more than one established version of the ballet to compete with, the Russian choreographer had to come up with a new way to tell the story, a version that could stand on its own and win the hearts of dancers and audiences familiar with Cranko’s work.
I will try to describe what I saw during my whirlwind visit to Toronto, although one viewing is not enough to do this new Romeo & Juliet justice. The choreography shows the fluidity and richness that we’ve come to expect from Ratmansky: quicksilver steps, continuous changes of direction, dances in counterpoint and myriad technical challenges for the dancers. He also manages to bring some of his whimsical style to a tragedy, while carefully developing the relationships between the various characters with signature steps and gestures.
At curtain up we meet Romeo (the elegant Guillaume Côté). Right from the start, he is given endless sequences of steps, including beaten jumps and multiple pirouettes. Surprisingly, certain passages in Prokofiev’s score that might call for slower movement, are met with fast paced dancing, giving us a sense of Romeo’s “butterflies in the stomach”. This is first love, pure and magical. Like in other versions, Juliet (a spellbinding Elena Lobsanova) is introduced as a girl who is entering into womanhood, with fluttering feet that turn into sudden jumps as if these new feelings and experiences are taking her by surprise.
Also brilliant are the characterizations and interactions between Mercutio (Piotr Stanczyk), Benvolio (Robert Stephen) and Tybalt (Jirí Jelinek, channeling True Blood’s sheriff Eric Northman). Most notably in the masks pas de trois – a sequence that is clever and entertaining – Ratmansky fleshes out the camaraderie between the Montague boys with tricky lifts and sudden shifts in movement, hinting that this type of synchronization can only come from friends who know each other well. Tybalt is a dancing role and he gets to show real flair and dazzling jumps in the various sword “dance-fights” throughout the ballet. Speaking of swords, here the “dance of the Knights” literally takes its name: to Prokofiev’s rising score the men reveal and raise their weapons.
In the ensemble dances, Ratmansky can go full-on quirky: focusing on the action and choreographic details, the corps dancers evolve from main groups into subgroups and the characterization is blended into the dancing. There are no props, no market square shenanigans, nor sellers throwing things at each other (none of the theatrics which are familiar to us from Cranko and MacMillan). It makes complete sense not to have color-coded garments for Montagues and Capulets (who wear beautiful Renaissance costumes by Richard Hudson) and so the choreographer has fun scrambling the families and townspeople. We see 8 couples and 2 “harlots” who alternate dancing and gesturing as if gossiping. They continuously regroup and finally come to face each other when Tybalt enters, revealing which house they belong to.
Due to Ratmansky’s characterization of the lovers as “innocent souls in love with the idea of love”, Romeo and Juliet look more involved in the subtler encounters. For instance in the ballroom scene, where an intimate moment emerges in the midst of the party: having assembled around the banquet table, the guests turn their backs to the audience so that Romeo and Juliet are left alone to perform a tender pas de deux – a smitten dance I’d call it. The choreography suggests carefree playfulness and out of nowhere Romeo steals a kiss. As in Lavrovsky’s version, the lovers also get to dance a brief yet evocative romantic duet before the wedding scene. By comparison the balcony pas de deux seems anti-climatic, as we don’t get a full sense of the restrained sexual tension that one would expect from the lovers’ first proper encounter alone.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ratmansky’s take on Romeo & Juliet comes towards the end: there is a bold plot twist which makes the story’s conclusion even more painful and tragic. But rather than finishing the ballet on this dramatic high, Ratmansky remains faithful to the play (and to Soviet versions of the ballet), bringing Capulets and Montagues to reconcile before their dead children. Though some might consider that this coda dilutes the tragedy, I don’t think it makes the ballet any less satisfying. This Romeo and Juliet can stand proud among the very best ones.
Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet continues at National Ballet of Canada until 27 November. For more information & booking visit NBC’s website