Monday, 7 November 2016

A Romeo and Juliet for our Times

Ballet Cymru, Romeo a Juliet, Riverfront Theatre, Newport, 5 Nov 2016, 19:30

Never has the story of Romeo and Juliet been more relevant to our times. Powerful aristocratic families may no longer brawl in Verona but, as Krzysztof Pastor showed in his version of Romeo and Juliet for Scottish Ballet, other forces have taken their place (see Scottish Ballet's Timeless Romeo and Juliet 18 May 2014). In Pastor's ballet the protagonists wore red shirts and black shirts and his message was reinforced by documentary footage from recent Italian history which was projected onto the backdrop. We see similar divisions in the bitter election campaign on the other side of the Atlantic  and, indeed, in our own country since the EU referendum. Shakespeare teaches us that hate kills. A lot of people die in his story - not just Romeo and Juliet but also Tybalt, Mercutio and Paris. However, there is also hope in Shakespeare's tale for the feuding families eventually come to their senses.

It is one thing for a theatrical work to be relevant to our times but quite another to transpose it to our times. It is sometimes said that ballet (like the other performing arts) needs to "get with it" (as folk used to say in the 1960s) if it is not to wither on the vine. It was the subject of the discussion between David Nixon and Luke Jennings on Front Row a few weeks ago which I mentioned in Of Bikes and Busses 25 Oct 2016. Pastor's colleague at the Dutch National Ballet, David Dawson, successfully brought  Swan Lake up to date for Scottish Ballet (see Empire Blanche: Dawson's Swan Lake 4 June 2016). It seems that Ted Brandsen may have pulled it off with Coppelia (see A Coppelia Makeover  5 Nov 2016). Other choreographers have been less successful. I fear that Akram Khan did not quite manage it with Giselle nor Nixon with Swan Lake I think Darius James and Amy Doughty succeeded in Romeo a Juliet.

Over the last few years, James and Doughty have produced one fine work after another - Beauty and the BeastCinderella and Tir to name just three. They have a company of dancers who in my view stand comparison with any similarly sized troupe in the world. They have rightly been nominated for the National Dance Awards for the second time year running, Why they do not get even more critical attention and indeed acclaim beats me. I may be a humble blogger but I have seen a lot of ballets in my time and in my book James and Doughty and their company are among the brightest stars in the balletic firmament just now.

I had seen Ballet Cymru's Romeo a Juliet in the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal in 2013 and loved it (see They're not from Chigwell - they're from a small Welsh Town called Newport 14 May 2013). On Saturday I saw the same ballet in the company's hometown and loved it even more. The show was presented in the Riverfront Arts Centre, a modern complex of galleries, studios and auditoriums on the banks of the Usk. The larger of the auditoriums seats 482 persons and has a big stage for dance. It was there that the show took place.

One of the reasons why I loved the show so much was Gwenllian Davies's remarkable performance as Juliet. Davies is in her first year with the company and this is her first job. Consequently, she is barely older than Shakespeare's Juliet. As I told her after the show, I have seen some of the world's greatest dancers in the role including Lynn Seymour and more recently Alina Cojocaru and Viktoria Tereshkina, but never have I seen a more convincing Juliet. Davies danced with passion and energy and, for a while, I saw in that talented young artist what Shakespeare must have imagined. Of course, Juliet is nothing without her Romeo. Andrea Battagia partnered Davies exquisitely.  Also young he has already achieved much in his career. He brought that experience and authority to the performance. He commands a stage in a way that few other dancers of his age can equal.

Another reason for the success of the ballet was Lydia Arnoux. She danced Cerys or Juliet's best friend. Because I am accused of double standards in not criticizing this innovation as "change for change's sake", I should explain that James and Doughty have set their ballet in modern Britain (indeed Newport) in which teenagers' nurses no longer exist but best friends do. Cerys more than makes up for the absence of the nurse. She introduces a new dynamic into the show. I had seen Arnoux in Kendal but she was even moredelightful on Saturday night.

Anther excellent young dancer whom Ballet Cymru has recruited as an apprentice just over a month ago is Ann Wall. As a member of the London Ballet Circle, I am proud to see that we have supported her. She danced Lady Capulet which is a demanding role for any dancer but particularly a very young one. She has to balance conflicting emotions of love and duty and acquire instantly the weight of years. She succeeded admirably.  In that role she was partnered deftly by Robbie Moorcroft as Lord Capulet. Moorcroft, another of the company's most experienced dancers and well liked by audiences, was impressive. He was magisterial in restraining Tybalt and rebuking Romeo after Romeo had gatecrashed the Capulets' party but tyrannical in his anger when confronted by a defiant daughter.

It was her father's blow that triggered the chain of events that led to the death of the lovers and Paris. Paris, danced by Mark Griffiths, yet another recent recruit by the company. Paris, an apparently decent man with seemingly sincere affection for Juliet, suffers not just her rejection but also death after lingering in the crypt for just a little bit too long. I have always had sympathy for him as I have for Hilarion in Giselle. He has even less cause to die.

The same cannot always be called for the headstrong Tybalt whom I have always regarded as a bit of a thug. Dylan Waddell portrayed him as a loyal brother zealous in defence of his sister's honour. Waddell, whom I had previously seen in MurleyDance, us a strong but sensitive dancer and a fine actor. Miguel Fernandes was a great choice for Mercutio. Another exciting dancer tp watch. So, too, was Anna Pujol, a convincing Benvolio.

One dancer I was particularly glad to see on stage was Krystal Lowe. She first impressed me in Kendal and my admiration for her work has increased with every performance. Her appearance in Tir at Sadler's Wellls last year a few weeks after the loss of Mandev Sokhi  was one of the most moving I have ever seen. She was the Friar on Saturday, a pivotal role but not the extended one created by Jean-Christophe Maillot for his version. Lowe was as magnificent as ever. If I had flowers I would gladly have tossed them on stage for her. On Saturday she performed as a guest artist. I understand that she is now at the University of South Wales and teaching Ballet Cymru's adult ballet class. I am sure all my readers join me in wishing her well in this latest stage of her career.

I said above that this was a Romeo and Juliet for our times. James and Doughty achieved this with only minimal changes to the libretto and only an abridgement of Prokofiev's score. The dancers wore modern dress and images of Newport flashed on stage. For instance, an image of the passage under the bridge across the Usk (which lies just yards away from the Riverfront) appeared in the riot scenes. The flashing light of a police vehicle appeared just at the point where the duke would arrive in other productions. Instead of swords the boys carried shillelaghs and knives. Nothing to suggest Verona.

Romeo a Juliet is James and Doughty's best work yet, It shows how a small company of young dancers with modest resources can stage a full-length ballet brilliantly.  It would not surprise me in the least if Ballet Cymru were nominated for a National Dance Award next year on the strength of this production.

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