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 from something established and old always poses a challenge. You have tradition to contend with, not to mention people’s expectations. This is perhaps especially true when dealing with a master like Shakespeare as Russian-born choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has done with Romeo and Juliet.

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 to commemorate the 60th anniversary season of the National Ballet of Canada, which is performing the new three-hour work at Toronto’s Four Seasons of the performing through Saturday with alternating casts, Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet is a tremendous accomplishment.

As a novel work of ballet art, it goes far in confirming that Ratmansky is deserving of the accolades currently being heaped upon him by the likes of The New Yorker magazine, which in a recent feature article on him declared him to be, “Ballet’s most sought-after man.” Ratmansky is it.

As a ballet, Romeo and Juliet has its origins in Sergei Prokofiev’s expressionistic and melodic score of the same name, his first full-length ballet. The first choreography for Romeo and Juliet debuted at the Kirov in Soviet Russia 1940, instantly becoming a modern classic. Having been born in St. Petersburg and Mariinsky-trained, Ratmasky has this artistic legacy of his native land deep inside his blood. This 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.

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

Ratmansky dares to play 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 also 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 version by John Cranko 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.

Dancer Sonia Rodriguez
But more exciting is his inventive choreography which takes classical dance idioms and infuses them with new life and vigour. The characters’ dance steps are endowed with dramatic meaning and rich emotional colour. The upper-body in this ballet is especially well-articulated, with the spine rolling and snapping to the music almost in fold dance tradition. The hands are also super pliant, with expression literally rolling off the dancers’ finger tips. Like the original play, the ballet is a mixture of bathos and pain. Ratmansky intersperses crowd scenes featuring acrobatics with gloriously sensual pas de deux, as observed in the pivotal balcony scene, and vividly introspective solos as performed by Juliet when left alone in her bedroom to drink the poison that she hopes will reunite her with her Romeo.

But no ballet is created in isolation. The success of this works depends as much on the evocative sets and costumes by Zimbabwe-born Richard Hudson, whose brilliant recreation of a pared-down Renaissance piazza (stunningly uncluttered by props) and historic costumes showing both the rounded silhouettes and jewel-tones of a Piero della Francesca fresco painting illustrate how well he studied his historic influences.

Yale University’s Jennifer Tipton’s lighting was bright and stark, illuminating the dramatic action as elucidated by Ratmansky’s kinetic but also narrative minded choreography. If there was one complaint it lies with her not creating through lighting effects a sense that the action is taking place under the influence of a hot Italian sun; it is partly why, according to the play, blood boils in the form of feuding neighbours in this burnt-brick town near the Veneto.

Dancer Naoya Ebe
Last but not least, the dancers ... A whole other review could easily be written about them. But there’s scant room here. So suffice to say they more than rose to the occasion of Ratmansky’s invigorating influence on their art of classical dance.

They wore his choreography like a second skin, so much so that the National Ballet didn’t feel like a pick-up company for the visiting choreographer, but more like family. Certainly, there was a strong sense of cohesiveness in the performance as a while. From corps de ballet to principal dancer, each member of the company was gloriously in sync.

Standouts from the 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 the most to the ballet’s two resplendent leads, Sonia Rodriguez (aka Mrs. Kurt Browning) 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.

You wanted 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, http://www.deirdrekelly.com.

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