Friday, 29 June 2018

MacMillan's Masterpiece

Romeo and Juliet web trailer from Birmingham Royal Ballet on Vimeo.

Birmingham Royal Ballet Romeo and Juliet 28 June 2018, 19:30 Birmingham Hippodrome

We have seen a lot of work by Sir Kenneth MacMillan over the last year or so to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. Everybody has his or her favourite work by that great man.  Mine is Romeo and Juliet.  It is about 50 years since I first saw that ballet at the Royal Opera House and I was captivated by it.  I have two abiding memories of that performance: Georgiadis's designs and Lynn Seymour's dancing.  I cannot for the life of me remember who partnered Seymour on that occasion.  It might have been Donald MacLeary, It may even have been Rudolf Nureyev. I certainly saw Nureyev with Fonteyn in that ballet - at least in film when I was a graduate student in Los Angeles if not on stage as I remember how much I preferred Seymour's dancing.

The reason I remember Seymour but not her partner is that MacMillan's ballet is a study of Juliet or rather her overnight transition from childhood to womanhood. Other choreographers have focused on different aspects of the story: Krzysztof Pastor on power or rather the power struggle between Capulets and Montagues reflecting the battle between left and right in modern Italian history (see Scottish Ballet's Timeless Romeo and Juliet 18 May 2014) while Jean-Christophe Maillot explores the role of Friar Lawrence (see Northern Ballet's Romeo and Juliet - different but in a good way 8 March 2015).  Romeo does not change or at least not in the same way and nothing like as much as as Juliet which is why I can always remember who danced Juliet in MacMillan's ballet but seldom her Romeo.

Because of MacMillan's focus on Juliet's transition I can't help comparing the ballerina who dances that role with Seymour. I have never seen a performance that has impressed me as much as Seymour's over the last 50 years but some have come close. Last night's exquisite performance by Celine Gittens came closest of all.  She taught me new things about the ballet.  Her realization of her womanhood as she tossed aside her toy. The look that she gives Romeo before they dance a step. No doubt that is part of the choreography but somehow I had missed them all the other times that I have seen the work.  In Gittens I saw Juliet rather than a representation of Juliet.  Just as I had with Seymour all those years before.

Another dancer who impressed me particularly last night was Ruth Brill.  She was the nurse. Not a big role  perhaps but a pivotal one.  She accompanies Juliet through every stage of the story.  A bighearted woman full of love.  She is ragged mercilessly by Juliet in the nursery and outrageously by the Montagues in the town square as she tries to deliver Juliet's note to Romeo. She prepares Juliet for her first ball. She witnesses her wedding. She tries to intercede with Juliet's parents when they force her to marry Paris. She discovers Juliet's lifeless body on the morning of what was supposed to be her wedding day.  She kneels beside her in the Capulet family crypt in the very last scene. Though very little of her face was visible under her veil I watched her eyes convey indignation as she was molested in the market place and then a frisson of delight as Romeo pecked her cheek after he had read Juliet's note.

Tall and athletic Brandon Lawrence was as worthy a Romeo as any I had seen in that role.  His duel with Tybalt was as thrilling as his dance with the seemingly lifeless Juliet in the crypt was chilling.  Valentin Olovyannikov was a haughty, headstrong Tybalt just as Shakespeare had portrayed him. Lachlan Monaghan was a gallant Mercutio stabbed in the back after he has every reason to believe his fight with Tybalt was over. It is always hard to hold back tears as he strums his sword as if it were a musical instrument and it was particularly hard last night. Samara Downs was a formidable Lady Capulet from the first icy curtsy at Escalus's command to the explosion of rage at the sign of her slain son. Alice Shee was a charming Rosaline. How many lives would have been saved had Romeo not given up on her.

There was so much to like in that performance.  There is the dance by Juliet's friends at the Capulets' party as she plucks the strings.  There is the mandolin dance  by the men in fuzzy costumes.  There was Paul Andrews's sets and costumes even though I think I prefer Georgiadis's which remind me so much of the work of Leon Bakst. There was the magnificent Maestro Kessels who won perhaps even more generous applause than he would otherwise have received after the second interval when the result of the Belgium match would have been known.

It was a long, hot drive to Biirmingham with congestion on the M1 and A52 forcing me to detour via Lichfield and Sutton Coldfield and an even worse drive back with the A38 (M) hors de combat and a massive tailback on the M6.  After delivering my friend to her home I crawled into my bed at 02:55 this morning. But last night's show was worth it.  Like the first time I saw Lynn Seymour I think I shall remember this performance for the rest of my life.

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