Russian State Ballet of Siberia
Romeo and Juliet
Cliffs Pavilion, Westcliff-on Sea
18th March 2005 (mat)
This latest version of Romeo and Juliet is from the former Bolshoi dancer, Sergei Bobrov and is regarded so highly in Russia that it has been nominated for one of this years prestigious “Golden Mask” awards. Easy to see why it has made the running as Bobrov’s concept of the ballet is awash with imaginative touches; some of which work very well and a few that rather miss the mark but he is clearly blessed with strong choreographic ideas that he is able to express in classical terms.
The curtain rises on Mercutio alone on stage wearing a deaths head mask; he removes it to reveal another mask of sorts as he has sequinned patterns across his cheeks. The corps de ballet enters, not as the familiar townsfolk but instead both male and female dancers wear costumes suggestive of stylized medieval armour. According to the programme “Mercutio and his friends (there is no Benvolio by the way, instead there’s a group of four friends, two male and two female all dressed similarly) present a show ridiculing the perpetual feuding of the two noble houses….”. Tybalt enters, furious at what he’s just seen, and the “satire” turns into the real thing as the fighting begins. It is brought to a halt by Escalus, the Prince of Verona, who has no retinue but instead asserts his authority through his lofty stature and over-sized sword: he wears a pair of dizzying platform boots and his sword is so massive it comes close to over balancing him. He verges on being comic.
Juliet’s scene with the nurse and her mother is brief with the ballroom scene following swiftly on. The guests are entertained by a statuesque woman in a black romantic tutu, the bodice decorated by white feathers arranged in a pattern suggesting ribs; she too wears a deaths head mask and actually carries a scythe – the grim reaper as ballerina. She dances a set piece with Mercutio’s friends singling them out for death with a clout from her scythe to the music usually allocated to Benvolio. Then a surprise: off come the mask and the dress and joker Mercutio is revealed. This scene introduces an extremely clever device that is repeated throughout the rest of the ballet; costumes are whipped off instantaneously and then placed upright on the stage as if an invisible dressmakers dummy is holding them up, so a big bravo to designer Dmitry Tcherbadzhi.
Juliet makes her entrance in a gorgeous floor length Renaissance gown and this too is removed in the same way as Mercutio’s female costume to allow her more freedom of movement. Following the familiar Dance of the Knights, Romeo and Juliet are attracted across the room in the usual love at first sight manner, but her response doesn’t quite ring true, as Romeo is wearing a massive comic mask that obscures almost all of his face so it’s difficult to see what it is about him that she likes the look of. In the meantime Lady Capulet whips off her elaborate costume to reveal a gold showgirl type leotard underneath and embarks on a brief steamy clinch with Tybalt; as the guests return Lady C slips back into her stand-up costume in a second (I’m still trying to figure out how that’s done). There is no ambiguity at all about the relationship between Tybalt and his aunt and at the end of the scene they exit together hurriedly, presumably to her bedroom.
The ‘balcony scene’ follows with some striking choreography but no actual balcony and instead of this scene ending the first act we go straight on to the nurse delivering Juliet’s marriage proposal followed by the couple carried aloft by the townsfolk on their way to their wedding.
The second act begins with the marriage in Friar Lawrence’s cell before the scene of the final confrontation with Tybalt. This is a little muddled with Mercutio’s death having him separating from his body while another dancer represents his soul, carried off by a black robed group named in the programme as “Death Heralds”. I felt the audience could easily become confused by the action in this scene. If Bobrov has taken his inspiration from another production, it may well be Declan Donnellan’s as from this point in the ballet he uses the corps in a manner reminiscent of the latest Bolshoi version with the Death Heralds grouping around the main protagonists rather like a Greek chorus.
Romeo and Juliet’s passionate bedroom pas de deux was Bobrov as his most inspired and proves he is a choreographer of real substance, the sexual fervour and final sorrow of parting was beautifully portrayed. But this was rather like an oasis of romance amid the turmoil surrounding them, as on balance I would say this production focuses more on the actual feud and its consequences than the love story at the ballets heart.
In the following scene where the Capulet parents demand that Juliet marries Paris, the usual response to their bullying at his point is usually terror or despair: not this Juliet, she explodes with anger, overturning the stand-alone costumes in her bedroom and slinging them into the wings in her rage. After the visit to Friar Lawrence a group at the back of the stage acts out the scene of her apparent death while at first she hesitates to drink the potion.
Juliet being laid to rest on her bier dressed in the Capulet colours of red and black rather than simply interring her in the nightdress she wore when she seemingly died was a clever touch that I admired. In this version Juliet wakes before Romeos poison takes hold to give the lovers a final scene together, a practice I’ve come across before but don’t especially like, though here the black-robed corps cluster around, appearing to enjoy the unfolding tragedy and their shoulders shake with laughter as they witness the dying couples despair which cancels out the sentimentality that is usually felt by a pre-death reunion at the ballet’s end.
In the role of Juliet I was most impressed by Olesya Aldonina, she dances a more robust version of Juliet than is conventional and is the more forceful half of the couple. She is an attractive girl with long blonde curls that make her look more like a fairytale princess than a renaissance Italian and she dances in a straightforward style without any mannerisms or references to the extreme technique that is blighting so many performances by the current generation of Russian female dancers. I liked her very much. Her Romeo was Andrei Asinyarov who is very handsome and also looks quite youthful. He was romantic but not a strong personality, possibly because Bobrov wanted his Juliet to be the dominant partner, nevertheless he was a able and sympathetic partner throughout.
It was a bold move for a touring company to present something different from the usual Swan Lake & Nutcrackers fare, and the packed audience at the matinee I attended clearly appreciated this sometimes-complex production, though I had to smile at the audible murmurs of recognition when the excellent orchestra began the opening bars of ‘Dance of the Knights’, now so familiar from TV ads and reality shows to sports commentaries. I look forward to seeing this company again and would like to see more of Sergei Bobrov’s choreography too.