“Romeo and Juliet”
St. Petersburg, Russia
by Catherine Pawlick
As part of the White Nights Festival, the Kirov Ballet performed “La Bayadere”, a mixed program with “Les Noces”, Dawson’s “Reverence” and Lander’s “Etudes”, as well as Balanchine’s “Jewels” May 23-25 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. St Petersburg residents were treated to the reciprocal visit of the Bolshoi Ballet on July 5 and 6, when the company debuted Declan Donnellan’s “Romeo and Juliet” here in Russia’s Venice of the North.
From his perch in the center of the Tsar’s box, business-suited Alexei Ratmansky, the fresh young director of the Bolshoi Ballet, attentively watched –along with the rest of the full house. The dance project, for it cannot be deemed otherwise, was not Ratmansky’s brainchild. It was conceived before Ratmansky’s three-year contract began, and it premiered in both London and the US last year. Only now, more than 6 months later, has the production made its way to Petersburg. Strangely, based purely on audience reaction, it was received more warmly than the London reports from last year’s premier.
When the curtain rises, one might assume this was a musical theatre production of "West Side Story." Two groups of 20 men and women each, dressed in normal clothes simply dance, in mostly Broadway-esque movements and formations. Think Gap's "Khakis" advertising campaign from the late '90s. But the most immediate and, for classical ballet fans, painful shift in Donnellan's production is in the music: Prokofiev's timeless score has been chopped up and rearranged. The sword fight music is moved to this introductory scene, for example, and nearly every section normally associated with certain passages in the ballet has been shifted and now use other characterizations. Arguments against this are rife. How can a work of such genius be manipulated so vulgarly?
The oddities were unremitting, not only through costuming and score, and the bleak, sparse sets (an 8-foot barrier around the rim of the stage in three sections for the first Act), but through characterization as well. Lady Capulet, here danced by the renowned and lovely Ilze Liepa, is somehow infatuated with Tybalt, danced with appropriate steel and sternness by Denis Medvedev. Tybalt is in love with a transvestite at the ball, who turns out to be Mercutio in a 1930s flappers-style female dress, danced by Yuri Klevtsov. The rest of the men at the ball look like the Chicago mafia from the same time period, clothed in black tuxedos, hair greased back. Juliet, a treat to watch in Maria Alexandrova’s rendition of the role, enters for the first time to the truce music in a purple dress and soft shoes. However, thank god for the dress, for she shifts to pants for most of the production. Alexandrova has been lauded before for her dancing and she deserves the praise. She exuded the idea of a youthful, pre-adolescent girl in the first act, and of a more mature, giving lover in the second; her acting abilities are commendable.
Unlike the ballet, in Donellan’s production Juliet is almost entranced at first by Paris' advances, danced by Alexander Volchkov. Romeo, danced admirably by the youthful Denis Savin for the July 5 performance, pursues “Rosalind”, Xenia Pchelkina in a red dress and red mask until his encounter with Juliet, offering more context for the star-struck quality of the two fated lovers. (Romeo must have dated others before he found Juliet, and this version shows you quite clearly that he did, although Rosalind’s role consists mostly of running on and offstage, and peeking out from her mask at Romeo).
If Donnellan’s “Romeo” doesn’t contain genius, it does contain moments of artistic inspiration. His incorporation of vocal sound into the production solidifies the work as more theatrical than balletic, but adds a dimension of depth at two important points in the plot. When Romeo meets Juliet at the ball, the rest of the cast freezes in motion: the two lovers are in their own world. They tentatively attempt to touch each other out of mutual fascination more than passion, and barely succeed before Juliet lets out an audible giggle and runs between the frozen figures, like a little girl in a playground, leaving Romeo only moments behind.
The second moment occurs in the final scene, when Juliet awakens from her drugged sleep to find Romeo’s body nearby. The sound she emits at first resembles a laugh in disbelief at the “joke’ Romeo must be playing and, seconds later it is a horrified, piercing shriek as reality quite audibly sets in. The sound draws up the horrors of losing a loved one to anyone who has experienced it and aided the tragic nature of Shakespeare’s message.
The balcony scene uses people as props, and throughout Romeo and Juliet never touch each other. A crowd of ballroom guests lift her overhead, symbolizing her balcony. At other points in the scene the guests symbolize the outside world, holding Juliet captive as she pulls her way, step by big, heavy step, towards Romeo, who is in the same predicament on the opposite side of the stage. Later, as he leaves the bedroom scene, he is swallowed by the same nameless, faceless crowd, as if they were a wall of liquid mercury, absorbing him.
Other characterizations stand out in Act One. Following Mercutio’s death, Tybalt is only too happy at the idea of taking on Romeo next. As Lady Capulet, Liepa entered the stage grief stricken in all black, and a chorus of girls in short black fishnet veils enter behind her. This scene ends erotically with Romeo and Juliet, dressed in lighter clothing, kissing in center stage with passion that bordered on vulgarity, surrounded by mourners in all black. The shock effect works.
Unlike the first Act, Act Two begins with a pleasant musical overture. This is the bedroom scene, in which Romeo and Juliet stand, wrapped together in one tight white sheet (more implicit of insane asylum restriction than of a love affair) atop a white box, to the backdrop of a red stripe, the same width of the bed/box, that runs the height of the ceiling and beyond. Upon first view it looks sterile, far from the warmth of human relations that this scene usually transports in successful productions.
Choreographically, an absence of balletic movement pervades Donnellan’s “Romeo” even through the bedroom duet. The constant turned in, parallel feet and bent knees echo Mats Ek or even Boris Eifman with a heavy dose of Broadway’s freedom of motion thrown into the mix.
The entrance of Juliet’s parents following Romeo’s exit from the bedroom adds more spice to the traditional plot than is usually present. Juliet bites Paris’ arm, after he physically accosts her. Lady Capulet is less concerned with the welfare of her daughter than with her own ends. Juliet’s visit to Friar Lawrence involves an interesting mime sequence in which he uses his hand to mime the exit of words from her mouth, and her own measure of time ticking away, exhibited by an outstretched fisted hand moving in five “minute” increments in a circle in the air.
No medicine bottle is present – Juliet’s poison is somehow on her hand. Alexandrova physically licks her own palm to achieve the desired medicinal effect. In the final scene, another small touch is notable: Romeo wraps Juliet’s hand around the dagger when he stabs himself. It’s a joint effort.
For the July 5 performance, the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra conducted Prokofiev’s score under the guidance of Alexander Vedernikov to clear and melodic release despite its rearranged order. One shouldn’t expect a classical “Romeo” when heading to Donnellan’s production, but it does give ample food for theatrical thought. In a theatre bound by tradition, the departure from convention is often welcome, as long as it’s not a permanent shift. As such, Donnellan’s “Romeo and Juliet” is an interesting endeavor and one that was audibly appreciated by Petersburgians.