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English National Ballet

'Romeo and Juliet '

by David Mead

November 2, 2010 -- Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, UK

Created on the company (then known as London Festival Ballet) in 1977, Rudolf Nureyev’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a visual delight. Ezio Frigerio’s settings are sumptuous. His lively Renaissance piazza transports you to the heart of fourteenth century Verona, while the feast at the ball has all the colour and life of a Paulo Veronese painting. It is all helped along by Tharon Musser’s fabulous lighting, perfectly adjusted for different times of the day and that really captures the bright, crystal-clear, Italian sunlight.

Contrasting the colour and vitality, Nureyev sees Verona as a crowded, dark and dangerous place. Again and again he looks into the future and sees inescapable fate controlling events. Death and portents of death run through the ballet. The very first thing we see is four black cloaked figures playing dice; the fates deciding their next victim. Later, a cart of plague victims passes by and a beggar dies immediately Romeo gives him a coin.

The ballet sticks closer to Shakespeare than pretty much any other version. Sometimes references to the play are very literal and very powerful. In Act III of the play, after Juliet speaks of how she has bought “the mansion of love, but not possess’d it,” she envisions the future saying, “I’ll to my wedding bed. And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!” Sure enough, it is one of the black cloaked figures, a messenger of death, that retires with her, presaging things to come. But accuracy is not everything, and the romance of the central love affair gets rather lost in everything else that’s going on.

Verona is also a city of sex and violence. Juliet’s first entrance is interrupted by her catching sight of her nurse in a sexual embrace with a guard, a device that also serves to highlight her own innocence. There is also more than a hint of an affair between Lady Capulet and Tybalt.

The ballet is vibrant and beautiful to look at, and events unfold with urgency. Nureyev uses some effective devices to help our understanding. When the friar’s explains to Juliet what will happen when she takes the potion, we see his words visualised by another dancer upstage. Later, Juliet’s anguish about what to do is embodied in the spirits of the now dead Mercutio and Tybalt as each tempts here to take a particular path. Unfortunately, on this occasion at least, the ballet is let down by being oddly devoid of much in the way of feeling. It never set the spine tingling and the heartstrings were not tugged once. It did get close to poignancy with the deaths of the lovers but, as if to prove literary accuracy is not all, the moment was spoiled totally by a weak reconciliation scene for the feuding families.

In her flowing white gown with her hair cascading over her shoulders, Daria Klimentová was a pleasant Juliet, occasionally delicate, but more often strong and confident. She seemed very worldly and some distance from a thirteen year-old teenager about to enter her first serious relationship. Innocent, romantic leads may not be her forte, but the choreography does not help. The pas de deux with Romeo are more about athleticism than love. Nureyev’s balcony scene, which actually takes place minus a balcony, must be one of the least romantic by anyone. He also has a tendency to be over fussy, often putting beats into sweeping lifts, thus drawing attention to the feet and away from the relationship between the two dancers.

Strength and confidence were not attributes shown by Vadim Muntagirov’s Romeo. Still only a year out of The Royal Ballet School, he may look youthful, but the role needs more than that. He lacked character, had little presence and was constantly overshadowed by both Yat-Sen Chang’s Mercutio and Max Westwell’s Benvolio. In contrast to Klimentová’s sure dancing that at least emphasised her interpretation of Juliet, Muntagirov looked strangely uncertain, especially in Act I when almost all his pirouettes looked most unsteady.

There were no such doubts about Chang or Fabian Reimair as Tybalt, who both imbued their characters with great depth. Chang was full of joie de vivre. Outwardly, this Mercutio is a preening, swaggering peacock, but his cheeky grin and bum-waggling makes it clear that at heart he is just a fun loving jester. Chang’s lightning fast footwork, especially in his small jumps, was also most impressive. He brought a smile to everyone’s face. Reimair on the other hand left us in no doubt that Tybalt was one seriously dangerous and vindictive individual, as he made full use of the choreography to emphasise his snake-like cunning. The stage overflowed with tension every time he appeared.

Elsewhere, the piazza is always a hive of activity, the market stallholders each seeming to have their own mini stories to tell. Sometimes you really had to tear yourself away to look at the main action. It was all so very real, which made it all the more odd that the brawls between the two families, and especially the sword fights, were anything but.

The English National Ballet Orchestra, in fine fettle, was conducted by Gavin Sutherland.

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