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Royal Ballet of Flanders

'Romeo and Juliet,' 'Symposium/Mondrian' and ' Not Strictly Rubens'

by Petra Tschiene

May 6 & 10, 2003 -- Sadler's Wells, London

This week sees the first visit of the Royal Ballet of Flanders, Belgiumís only classical ballet company to London. The 50-dancer strong ensemble present Andre Prokovskyís Romeo & Juliet and a Mixed Bill titled Not Strictly Rubens during their weeklong residency at Sadlerís Wells.

With a total running time of just 2 hours Prokovskyís version of Romeo & Juliet manages to speed through the story without ever appearing to rush. Cutting out the overture we are taken straight into the lively market place and the narrative begins to unfold. Prokovsky seems to have taken some inspiration from movie story telling. His version jumps straight into the action, on occasion zooms in onto happenings in the bigger picture, for example Romeo and Julietís encounter in the ballroom, without ever suggesting to empty the stage to give the protagonists space to dance. He also has created Mercutioís death by Tybaltís sword and Romeoís reaction to it played out in slow motion to spine chilling effect. Overall the choreography flows very naturally, giving ample expression to the story told by Prokofievís powerful score.

The sets, costumes and lightning design all compliment Prokovskyís no nonsense approach. Robin Donís basic set of simple grey marble walls allows for easy and convincing transformation from market place to ball room to bed chamber with just a few added accessories like a well, or wall tapestries. Alexander Vassilievís costume colour coding, red for the Capulets, green for the Montagues, black and white for Tybalt serves as an unintrusive guide to the story. I have been especially impressed by the simple elegance of the long flowing dresses in the ballroom scene.

Tuesday night saw Aysem Sunal and Joroen Hofmans as the doomed couple. Sunal was a very believable Juliet, conveying the transformation from innocent young girl to woman in love driven to desperate measures by the circumstances with every expressive movement. Her performance was matched by Hofmanís portrayal of Romeo. Alain Honorez as the energetic and mischievous Mercutio and Guiseppe Nocera as the easily provoked Tybalt especially stood out among the all around fine and convincing performances. The entire company are accomplished dancers as well as actors which is essential for Prokovskyís compressed and stripped down to essence version to work.

There is only one detail in this highly enjoyable production that I disagree with. Juliet wakes before Romeo dies of the poison he has taken and the couple embark on a passionate Pas de Deux. Although I understand the difficulty of creating choreography for Romeo to dance with what he believes to be Julietís dead body, to have him joyfully dance with her and only giving a brief indication of tummy ache twice before he dies simply does not work in my opinion. That said this small flaw would certainly not keep me from seeing this version of Romeo & Juliet again.

The Royal Ballet of Flandersís mixed programme, although titled Not Strictly Rubens, started with Christopher DíAmboiseís Symposium/Mondrian set to music by Leonard Bernstein. According to the painter Piet Mondrian, ďThere is nothing more beautiful than a straight line and nothing more volatile than a shape placed next to it.Ē Inspired by this quote the choreography plays with strict geometric patterns for the black clad corps de ballet intersected by playful duos and trios that literally introduce colour in the form of yellow, red and blue leotards. The piece appeared modern, fresh and clear cut with a jazzy quality, enjoyable all around.

Unfortunately the eveningís main work Mark Bogaertsís Not Strictly Rubens worked less well for me. Set to an original score by pop and dance phenomenon Praga Khan, the piece takes us through the 4 stages of Rubensís creative vision, in 4 colour coded acts: white, blue, gold and red. The work makes clever use of the only prop on stage, a large frame covered with a beige elastic material, symbolising a giant canvas. Lit from behind it allows the dancers to loom behind, moulding it before literally bursting into the picture. Although there were some interesting ideas in the choreography I found myself increasingly distracted by the much hyped costumes designed by Walter Van Beirendonck. His fluffy, feathery and bulky creations, which at one point include full face masks, bare breasts and slips with huge artificially penises for the girls, looked more and more ugly and irritating to me. By the end of the 80 minutes I was just relieved it was over. According to the programme notes, ďRubensí baroque ideals of beauty and humanity are transposed to our own time and expressed by means of modern-day lightning colour and dance.Ē I am sorry to say that what I saw simply did not live up to this description. Hopefully the Royal Ballet of Flanders will consider to bring different works from their repertory for their next visit. I most certainly would like to see this company again.

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