Along with Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet is always part of a major ballet company’s core repertory. Prokofiev’s music mirrors the development of each character, shaping atmosphere and mood. This is a score that, together with Tchaikovsky’s most celebrated ballets, keeps on inspiring choreographers to interpret the story. In other words, “a gift that keeps on giving”.
Over the years, there has been much discussion about which version of Romeo and Juliet is the definitive one. For many, Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 staging – which owes much to earlier versions by Lavrovsky and Cranko – is the yardstick for measuring other adaptations. London audiences in particular, who get to see MacMillan’s version every other year, have certain expectations when hearing this most familiar of scores (currently in its 450+ performance at the Royal Ballet), and this natural bias means that it is difficult for any new version to make its mark. In Canada, conversely, the yardstick was Cranko’s version, something I observed when I attended the premiere of Ratmansky’s version for the National Ballet of Canada.
The version created for Scottish Ballet by Polish choreographer Kryszstof Pastor – and recently performed by the company in London – takes a fresh approach. Originally premiered in 2008, Pastor’s version has been moved to 20th century Italy, with the story jumping forward from the thirties to the nineties. The programme notes have it that “Romeo and Juliet is a love story within a clear social and political context” where “a younger generation tends to suffer and even die from the mistakes and misfortunes of a previous one”. The story is timeless, but by moving the drama across different eras, Pastor tries to show how it re-emerges in a variety of contexts. His designers, Tatyana van Walsum and Bert Dalhuysen, respond well to this, with video projections and lighting used effectively to frame the action.
By fleshing out the social aspects in the story, Pastor, to a certain degree, relegates the lovers’ drama to a backseat: for example, Romeo’s entrance makes less of an impact, and such key moments as the first encounter between the lovers during the ball were subdued. I thought Pastor was at his best in the strong ensemble dances, which show him in command of a fluid vocabulary that stretches classical movement into the expressionistic contemporary genre. In addition to being very watchable, the choreography showcases Scottish Ballet’s energetic corps, morphing from community exchanges to fight scenes without the need for abrupt or contrived transitions.
With a medium-sized company of 36 dancers, Pastor has reworked the ballet into two acts rather than three, excising many of the scenes involving secondary characters. Gone are the Nurse and Paris, but expanded are the roles of Lord and Lady Capulet (here played by Owen Thorne and Eve Mutso), the former taking centre stage as he provides Tybalt with a dagger to kill Mercutio. But irrespective of the choreographer’s intentions and social emphasis, the story does return to the lovers, and both Erik Cavallari and the luminous Sophie Martin were able to make the most of their fleeting moments together, with touching performances that were generously greeted by the audience. Pastor’s staging is most definitely a very different experience when stacked against the familiar MacMillan (which admittedly, I will always favour for its narrative choice of placing Juliet’s journey at its core), but rewarding on its own terms and definitely well-suited to Scottish Ballet.