Saturday, 1 June 2019

A World-Class Company for a Changing Nation

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Ballet Cymru Rome a Juliet 31 May 2019 Riverfront Theatre, Newport

This is the third time I have seen Darius James and Amy Doughty's Romeo a Juliet and each time I see it I have found something new. Last night I saw two exceptional talents: Danila Marzilli, one of the finalists in the ballet category of the BBC Young Dancer of 2019, for the first time; and Beau Dillen whom I had seen two months earlier in Made in Wales. Marzilli danced Juliet in the second professional performance of her life (the first being the previous night) and Dillen the nurse, standing in for Krystal Lowe at the very last moment.

To give a young dancer straight out of ballet school the leading role is an incredibly risky thing to do both for the dancer and the company. James and Doughty did that once before with Gwenllian Davies the last time I saw Romeo a Juliet and it worked spectacularly well (see A Romeo and Juliet for Our Times 7 Nov 2016). It also worked last night with Mazilli. Mazilli is very accomplished technically but she can also act. The despair in the bedroom was palpable after Romeo had taken flight and her parents, grief-stricken with the loss of Tybalt, were piling on the pressure for her to marry Paris. So, too, was the fear as she considered whether to take Friar Larence's potion.  So, also, was the agony of finding Romeo's body in the Capulet family grave.  These and all the other thoughts and feelings fleeting through young Juliet's consciousness were communicated with considerable eloquence.

In most versions of Rome and Juliet and, of course, the play the nurse is much older than Juliet and her social inferior.  In James and Doughty she is a confidante.  In previous performances by this company, she has been called Cerys.  In last night's show, she was referred to simply as "Juliet's friend." As such, she adds a dynamic to the narrative that actually enhances Shakespeare.  She recognizes Romeo at her parents' ball and tries to lead Juliet away.  She tries to intercede with Juliet as she rejects Paris. It is she who finds Juliet stone cold the morning of her wedding. This is a role that requires maturity and authority which is why it is usually performed by one of the company's most experienced dancers. Dillen is the company's apprentice yet she filled that role magnificently.

Romeo was danced by Andrea Maria Battagia who performed that role the last time I saw the ballet.  He is everything a male lead should be.  A virtuoso who thrills with his solos but nevertheless displays his ballerina like the setting of a precious jewel so that she dazzles.  I think we owe a lot to Battagia for the way he partnered Mazilli last night, much as he did with Davies in 2016. Battagia can also act.  For the first time ever I saw Romeo as a flawed hero. Possibly because he despatched Tybalt and Paris with plebian knives rather than gentlemen's swords.  A whiff of brexit Britain rather than renaissance Verona.

That brings me on to another quality of James and Doughty's work. It is set in our time and our country.  The first time I saw the work I noted Tybalt's dragon tattoo and the substitution of Cerys as a confidante of Juliet in place of the nurse (see They're not from Chigwell - they're from a small Welsh Town called Newport 14 May 2013).  Instead of a duke, the brawl between the Capulets and the Montagues is broken up by the flashing lights and shadowy figures of the Gwent Constabulary. The knifings of Mercutio and Tybalt took place not in the Piazza of Verona but underneath the flyover of the exit lane from the bridge over the Usk.   I recognized the setting in the projections against the backdrop. Again there were the flashing lights of the Heddlu.

Talking of Tybalt it is always a delight to watch Robbie Moorcroft swagger on stage. Our hearts go out for Miguel Fernandes as Mercutio, the cub of the Montague pack with something to prove. Romeo tried to hold him back but too late.  He takes on the wily Tybalt who knifes him.  His bravado after his first wound is one of the most heart-rending scenes of classical dance. The second knifing turns Romeo and Juliet from a saccharine romance into drama. Romeo has to get involved.  He then has to go on the run. There is no way this story could end otherwise than badly.

Lord and Lady Capulet danced by two of my favourite dancers, Alex Hallas and Beth Meadway, added yet another quality to the work. Other productions show a tearful, vengeful Lady Capulet but her husband's role is usually minor.  Not in James and Doughty's work. They are sleek, powerful, authoritarian - and Northern. It just so happens they are both from Yorkshire. I could almost hear them:
"Now listen up, our kid. There's nowt wrong with Paris. You could do a lot worse than wed him. I know he's not much to look at but he's got brass and he's not wanted by the law. Not like that Romeo Montague. Ooh, I do hope they catch him, lock him up and throw away the key. How could you even look at him after what he did to Tybalt?"
And with her friend joining in, is it any wonder that Juliet buried her face in a pillow before quaffing Friar Lawrence's potion and eventually killing herself?

Everyone in this show danced well.  Joshua Feist was a perfect Paris, another recent recruit whose career I shall follow with interest. Isobel Holland was an impressive Friar Lawrence. Much closer to Shakespeare than the manipulative cleric in Jean-Christophe Maillot's version of the ballet. Maria Teresa Brunello was a convincing Benvolio.  Not easy to dance a role of the opposite gender.  Holland and Brunello are to be congratulated for that alone.   Especially as there are some in ballet who would not countenance it.   I recently met a teacher and choreographer who was scandalized by my learning to dance the bronze idol in an adult ballet intensive.

James and Doughty have big plans for their company.  They are touring China soon where I am sure they will be admired.   They hope to employ their dancers on full-term rather than short-term contracts.  Ballet Cymru reminds me a lot of Scottish Ballet when they first moved to Glasgow 50 years ago.

Like Scotland in the 1970s, Wales is changing fast.  I sense a growing sense of nationhood.  The National Assembly now makes primary legislation.  The Supreme Court already sits in Cardiff and there are calls even from Unionists for a separate Welsh court system.   Until a few years ago the economy of the North was largely rural and that of the South was not unlike that of the American rust belt.  The economy is changing rapidly into one that is knowledge-based.   I see signs of that transformation every time I visit M-Sparc, Aber Innovation or the Pontio Arts and Innovation Centre.  The entrepreneurs, innovators and creative folk who are driving that change need the arts and expect the best.  They demand world-class dance and Ballet Cymru is delivering it to them.

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