Sunday, 8 March 2015

Northern Ballet's Romeo and Juliet - different but in a good way

Northern Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, The Grand, Leeds, 7 March 2015

Having seen Seymour and Fonteyn as Juliet in my youth and having seen more recently Xander Parish and Viktoria Tersehkina in the Mariinsky's Romeo and Juliet and Friedemann Vogel and Alina Cojocaru in English National Ballet's and with Birmingham Royal Ballet's sensational Coppelia fresh in my memory I feared that Northern Ballet's Romeo and Juliet last night would be an anticlimax. It was anything but. It might have disappointed me had it tried to ape MacMillan or Lavrovsky, but it didn't. It was entirely original while remaining faithful to Shakespeare.

But not slavishly faithful. There's a puppet show but no sword fights in Jean-Christophe Maillot's Romeo and Juliet. Tybalt clubs Mercutio with a blunt instrument for which he is strangled by Romeo. There's a bedroom scene but Juliet is not in her nightie. She's sitting on her bed with her nurse when Romeo arrives. When she first sees him Juliet tries to thump him one as she is beside herself with rage and despair having learnt what her husband had done to her cousin. The biggest innovation is the pivotal role that it gives to Friar Lawrence. In most ballets and in Shakespeare's play he is a minor character solemnizing the marriage and supplying the drug that knocks Juliet out cold. But in Maillot's ballet he is a much more important and interesting character. He's the do gooding cleric whose clever wheeze to bring peace to Verona backfires disastrously. The ballet opens with him the friar and he remains on stage at the close. In that respect Maillot has not just rewritten the ballet. He has actually rewritten Shakespeare and perhaps improved on the play.

Maillot's choreography is not pretty but it is dramatic. The dancers individually and in pairs or groups adopt unusual shapes. At many times I was reminded of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. There was extensive use of mime. Emotion was transmitted with clarity and immediacy. There were some delightful touches. The balcony appears as a slope and Juliet slides down into view as Romeo appears. He helps her down. She shakes her legs as he lowers her down communicating a frisson of excitement and not a little apprehension. In the wedding scene a length of fabric is cleverly transformed from veil into an arch indicating a chapel.

I should at first say something about the designs for they are nothing like Pyotr Williams's in the Mariinsky's version with its landscape vistas or the lushness of Nicholas Giorgiadis's in the MacMillan version. Ernest Pignon-Ernest's set is compact and functional.  Ideal for touring perhaps but a little austere. My heart sank when an image of a church, the title of the ballet and the names of the dancers were projected onto the stage as in a PowerPoint presentation in the overture. Were we to be treated to a flickering light show? I wondered. But that was the only use of the technique and elsewhere Dominique Drillot's lighting was effective. Particularly the partially inverted cross in the crypt scene. It interacted well with Jérôme Kaplan's costumes and the set. They appeared bland and almost monochrome at first but the understated use of colour prepared us for delight at Juliet's shimmering gold ball dress.

And now the dancers. Where do I begin?

I saw my beloved Northern in a completely new light last night. I knew Tobias Batley to be dashing and handsome from his other work but he communicated sensitivity and even vulnerability last night.  I also saw another side of Dreda Blow.  I had last seen her as Mina in Deacula in which I had admired her dancing but did not warm to her. I was surprised when I heard that she had been cast as Juliet. I had expected Leebolt in the role, of course, but I would have chosen Pippa Moore as the alternate Juliet. Casting Blow for the role was an inspiration. She was a perfect Juliet. Playful and feisty. Loving but conflicted. Brave but fearful. Blow is elevated to my pantheon of favourites.

But we still got Moore as the nurse. This is a character role and she danced it beautifully. She is also a complex and conflicted character that demands much from a dancer. Again, it was perfect casting.

Gita Mistry's Lee-Baker
The pivotal role, as I said before and also in my preview is Friar Lawrence. He reminds me of the preacher in Appalachian Spring and of the minister in Gillian Lynne's re-staging of A Miracle in the Gorbals. He appears not in a habit but in a suit and dog collar. It requires a strong and dramatic dancer and we found strength and drama in Isaac Lee-Baker. This is a strenuous role and amazingly he is performing it night after night in both casts. After he had danced Wilson in Gatsby at the Alhambra my friend Gita named one of her puddings in his honour. Had she seen him last night I think he would have merited one of her famous curries.

There were strong performances also from Hannah Bateman as the haughty Lady Capulet, Mlinde Kulashe as the headstrong Tybalt (another bit of inspired casting and another career for me to follow), Joseph Taylor as Paris, Abigail Prudames as the lovely Rosalne - the list could go on but then it would read like a telephone directory. Nearly all my favourites had a role yesterday including Rachael Gillespie and Kevin Poeung. Why do I like them especially? When they move they make my spirits soar. Why's that exactly? Dunno. Maybe it's because they love their dancing so. It reminds me of a story about Sir Peter Wright that one of my favourite dancers from the Birmingham Royal Ballet once related but I won't go into it now.

Unlike many balletomanes I like to let a ballet sink in before I see it again, even with a different cast. A matinee and an evening performance on the same day or even in the same season is usually too much for me. But I think I will make an exception with this work. I am dying to see what Leebolt, Contadini, Brooks-Daw and Torres make of this show.

And I need to see this show without thinking of cushions whenever the Dance of the Knights is played. Why cushions? Ernst Meisner knows for he favourited this tweet:
You must read my review of Bart Engelen's performance of Milena Siderova's  Full Moon to find out.

Further Reading

Rod Nordland  Back in Afghanistan, Modern Romeo and Juliet Face Grave Risks 7 March 2015 NY Times

1 comment:

  1. i read your lines really enjoying thanks
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