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Bolshoi Ballet

'Romeo and Juliet'

Theory of the leisure class

by Cassandra

July 26, 2004 -- The Royal Opera House, London

The new Bolshoi production of “Romeo and Juliet” is a pared down version in every way. The running time is approximately an hour shorter than we’ve come to expect and consequently Prokofiev’s music comes in for something of a hacking, not just from the musical cuts, but also with some rearranging. Sets are minimal to non-existent and the modern dress costumes are mostly blacks and greys with only the costumes of Rosalind and Lady Capulet providing a splash of colour.

The action moves so fast that no sooner have we been introduced to Juliet, dancing happily around a pair of corpses (casualties of the family feud) then we are at the Capulet ball. The dysfunctional Capulets in modern evening dress rather than renaissance costumes made me realise that this family represents an idle leisured class for whom feuding with the neighbours helps fend a off a perpetual state of ennui. Lady Capulet appears to be dealing with her personal ennui with her nephew Tybalt and spoilt brat Juliet initially reacts as if an interlude with Paris looks like fun as they exit the stage together.

Romeo joins the party with his friend Mercutio in drag with the latter quickly attracting the amorous attentions of Tybalt. Juliet returns to the ballroom to encounter Romeo in a striking passage of silence as Juliet makes her move on the rather passive Romeo before swooning at his feet. Meanwhile Tybalt attempts to snog Mercutio, who chooses that moment to reveal he is a man. The assembled guests rock with laughter at Tybalt’s embarrassment and from that moment on Mercutio is a marked man as far as Tybalt is concerned.

The entire corps de ballet accompanies Romeo and Juliet in the balcony scene --often forming a barrier forcing the couple apart. The corps seems to occupy a position in this ballet similar to a Greek chorus, present at every important juncture and commenting among themselves. They also provide those lifted tableaux that used to be such a feature of the ballets of Grigorovitch, though of course this may not be intentional. The marriage takes place without the connivance of Juliet’s nurse, because the nurse doesn’t feature in this production at all. After the wedding Tybalt gets his revenge on Mercutio by stabbing him in the back, Romeo stabs Tybalt repeatedly and as her parents emote over their nephew’s body Juliet kisses Romeo not as an act of forgiveness after her cousin’s death, but because she is clearly indifferent.

Act II opens with the most passionless and un-erotic bedroom scene I’ve ever seen with the ever-present corps in attendance, a corps that swallows Romeo up as he makes his abrupt exit from Juliet. After Romeo’s hasty departure, Juliet is confronted by her parents and Paris kitted out in morning dress for her wedding. After a very physical tussle with Paris, Juliet flees to Friar Lawrence (running vigorously on the spot), takes the sleeping potion and apparently dies. At this point the most unattractive moment in the choreography occurs as while Juliet is laid out on her tomb the female corps de ballet display their crotches to the audience while the males down on all fours waggle their backsides.

There is no Paris to challenge Romeo at the tomb and indeed there are no mourners there at all apart from the ever-present corps. Romeo dances with Juliet’s supposedly dead body before stabbing himself. Juliet awakens at first ecstatic to discover she is still alive, her joy turning to fear in the confines of the sepulchre. On discovering Romeo she also stabs herself and is laid across his body in death by the corps.

Romeo and Juliet were danced by Denis Savin and Maria Alexandrova -- he rather down beat and she far more forceful. As this was a production that had little to do with romantic passions, it’s difficult to assess how good or otherwise they were in the scheme of outstanding interpreters of these roles as choreographically neither was challenged at all. Perhaps it was Mercutio and Tybalt who stole the show, simply because they were given the most interesting steps to perform. The laid back ironic Mercutio danced by Yuri Klevtsov contrasted well with the up tight Tybalt of Denis Medvedev, here not so much a ‘Prince of Cats’ as a sufferer of ‘small man syndrome’.

Ilse Liepa and Victor Barykin gave the Capulet parents much more significance than usual simply through the power of their strong personalities. As I mentioned earlier Juliet had no nurse in this production and Romeo was short of a pal as Benvolio had also been pencilled out; though perhaps the most serious omission was that of Escalus, a small role but vitally important in representing society’s opprobrium of the warring families.

There was enthusiastic applause at the end of the evening, but I could find no admirers of the work among the ballet fans I spoke to afterwards. In a way this was a shame as it was an interesting piece with some striking ideas and had a smaller contemporary company taken on this ballet I would probably have rated it more highly. But danced by the Bolshoi I simply couldn’t get over the feeling that these glorious dancers were being criminally wasted.

Significantly, this ballet has been referred to as Declan Donnellan’s “Romeo and Juliet” rather than that of the choreographer Radu Poklitaru. Whether this production marks the start of an interest in ballet by theatre producers remains to be seen. As a theatregoer I’ve become accustomed to outlandish productions of Shakespeare over the years, but a ballet deals with music as well as with text and perhaps it was the lacerations to Prokofiev’s score that left me ultimately dissatisfied by this highly idiosyncratic production.

Edited by Jeff.

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