Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You Don’t Want the Dancing to Stop: National Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova in Romeo and Juliet. (Photo by Bruce Zinger)

Creating something new out of something already established poses a challenge. You have tradition to contend with, not to mention other people’s expectations – especially true when your source is Shakespeare. In the case of Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who has just created a dramatic new dance version of Romeo and Juliet, the solution was to acknowledge all this while still forging ahead. The result is a modern day masterpiece of narrative ballet.

With Romeo and Juliet, Ratmansky  the former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, now into his second term as artist in residence of New York’s American Ballet Theater  revisits not only literary tradition but also music and dance history.

A commission commemorating the 60th anniversary season of the National Ballet of Canada, his new three-hour work is at Toronto’s Four Seasons of the Performing Arts through Saturday with alternating casts. It's a tremendous accomplishment.

As a novel work of ballet art, it goes far in confirming Ratmansky's status as "the most sought-after man in ballet," as declared by The New Yorker magazine in a recent feature article about the choreographer.

His ballet has its origins in Sergei Prokofiev’s expressionistic and melodic score of the same name. The first choreography created for it debuted at the Kirov in Soviet Russia 1940, instantly becoming a modern day classic. Born in St. Petersburg and Mariinsky-trained, Ratmasky has his city's artistic legacy deep inside his blood  which is all the more reason to be astonished by the truly original approach he has taken to the ballet, as well as the story, as a whole. It departs from tradition in interesting ways.

Ratmansky plays with the Bard’s immortal story of star-crossed lovers in long-ago Verona in ways that heighten the tragedy and make it real for today’s audiences. He shows great sensitivity to Prokofiev’s music, creating highly visual and rhythmic movement phrases that skillfully draw out the drama inherent to the score. By restoring passages cut from the John Cranko version that the National Ballet has had in its repertoire since 1964, Ratmansky augments the overall feeling of artistic adventure permeating the production as a whole.

Alexei Ratmansky rehearsing Romeo and Juliet. (Photo by Sian Richards)

Equally exciting is his inventive choreography which takes classical dance idioms and infuses them with new life and vigour. He endows movement with dramatic meaning and rich emotional colour, allowing it to speak to the audience without an over-dependence on mime. The upper-body in this ballet is especially well-articulated, with the spine rolling and snapping to the music in accordance with folk dance tradition. The hands are super pliant, with musical expression literally rolling off dancers’ finger tips.

Dancer Sonia Rodriguez
Like the original play, the ballet is a mixture of bathos and pain. Comedic crowd scenes, especially those showcasing the mischievous Mercutio, combine with sensual pas de deux and vividly introspective solos to create dramatic tension and drive the plot. Ratmansky approximates the poetry of Shakespeare with a vision scene in the third act in which Juliet foresees the intended consequences of her faked death. He captures her inner distress with a bedroom dance sequence in which her father, mother, and intended betrothed, the hapless Paris, link hands to dance in the round with Juliet at the centre. She falls backwards over their arms, limp as a doll. The passage shows her trapped by circumstances, manipulated by fate and seemingly powerless to escape her bonds. It's a thrillingly telling moment that says so much without using words.

But no ballet is created in isolation. The success of this work depends as much on the evocative sets and costumes by Zimbabwe-born Richard Hudson as the choreography. Hudson's recreation of a pared-down Renaissance piazza (stunningly uncluttered by props) in addition to costumes showing both the rounded silhouettes and jewel-tones of a Piero della Francesca fresco painting anchor the ballet firmly in Renaissance Italy but without looking dated or antiquated.

Yale University’s Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is stark, illuminating the dramatic action but also casting Ratmansky’s kinetic choreography in moody shadow. If there is a criticism it lies with Tipton not creating a sense that the action is taking place under the influence of a hot Italian sun; the dog days of August, according to the play, is the reason the blood boils in Verona.

Dancer Naoya Ebe
Last, but not least, are the dancers. While new to Ratmansky's choreography, the Nation Ballet wears it like a second skin. The company doesn't feel like a pick-up company for the visiting choreographer from New York but but more like family. Certainly, there is a strong sense of cohesiveness in the performance as a whole.

Standouts from the recent Tuesday night performance include Etienne Lavigne as a rough-and-tumble Lord Capulet who manhandles his wife (Alejandra Perez-Gomez) in a Renaissance court dance (one of the best set scenes in the ballet) that show the violence always simmering just below the ballet’s decorous surfaces. Jonathan Renna as Mercutio was a comedic dancer, a true crowd-pleaser. Kevin D. Bowles as Tybalt was convincingly a hot head, killed on the sword of his own bluster.

But the evening belonged most to the ballet’s two resplendent leads, senior company member Sonia Rodriguez as Juliet, and Naoya Ebe as Romeo. Ebe, a second soloist definitely on the rise, was fluid, graceful, poignant and mesmerizing – a fantastic partner to Rodriquez’s winsome, girlish, light-as-her-dreams Juliet. The desire was to keep on watching them dance together. When the ending arrived (you all know the story) there was real cause for alarm: The dancing had stopped.

This in itself was tragic. 

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information,

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