Every time I see a version of R + J, I can’t help but hope that this time, it’ll all work out.
But time after time, be it the play or the ballet, fate takes over, the message goes awry and the star cross’d lovers are doomed. No matter how much I hope against hope, I know in my heart the tragedy will win out.
For never was a story of more woe…
There certainly was plenty of woe in the Swedish Royal Ballet’s production of Shakespeare’s unforgettable tragedy. But the innovative choreography, intimate character studies, athletic performances and creative storytelling was what truly brought the house to its feet, for at least six standing ovations, at Palais Garnier on closing night.
Juliette et Roméo was a masterpiece of contemporary ballet. There were no tights, no pointe shoes and no props. It stripped the story down to its fundamental points and blended them with original, conceptual choreography by Mats Ek for a fresh take on this timeless tale.
The opening scene clearly established the two feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets, but their fight was more symbolic than literal. There was no miming, no dance-off à la West Side Story, or any actual fight choreography. Instead the energy behind the movement became more menacing while Tchaikovsky’s score built and the tension between the groups of dancers crackled with every leap and turn. Before we knew it, the fight was over, the survivors had scattered and the stage was set for another, reinterpreted scene of the story.
This creative approach drew me even further into a story I already love and paved the way for a new exploration of the plot through the perspectives of some of the minor characters. The Prince, for instance, arrived onstage as the fight was ending, and he performed a lengthy solo that was danced almost entirely on the spot. His dramatic, en cloche-style runs represented how he is constantly running after the feuding families, always arriving two steps too late and how isolated and ineffective he is as a ruler.
Lady Capulet was another minor character who’s side of the story was more fleshed out. After Tybault’s death in Act 2, what began as a grief-stricken solo became a powerful piece of collective mourning as she was joined by other female dancers. Representing the women and the mothers of Verona, their dance was a sorrowful tribute to the lives lost to the senseless of the feud and to those who are left to pick up the pieces.
The minor characters being so well-drawn and multi-faceted set the bar very high for the main characters but the principals of the Swedish Royal Ballet delivered some flawless performances, all underscored by solid ballet technique. Juliet’s character was very eccentric and quirky, twitching with pent-up, adolescent excitement, twirling and rolling on the floor in a bright yellow dress. Her leading man Romeo was danced with conviction and a unique combination of strength and vulnerability. The two lovers had a touching chemistry together and performed their contemporary partner work with the right balance of passion and grace. Their dancing was multi-leveled: executing light, soaring jumps one minute and sinking, literally, through the floor. Mercutio and Benvolio, Romeo’s main men, were tough, smart-assed guys with lots of attitude and the jumps to prove it. Their trio had a playful, tumbling style together and really brought the athleticism to the party.
Speaking of which, the party scene was gorgeously executed on all fronts: the big group choreography, the stunning costumes and the golden, backlit lighting design. The ensemble was unwavering in its precision and versatility and the jewel-toned velvet capes and tunics moved like extensions of the dancers’ limitless limbs. The only set pieces used during the entire ballet were long, jagged partitions the dancers moved around, scene by scene to create the walls, halls and balconies of fair Verona. They also served as a literal reminder of the symbolic walls of put up between the people by the feud.
The simple but effective set and costumes supported the main action – the storytelling through the mesmerizing dance and character work. I can’t say enough about how well the choreography, though very contemporary, stayed true to the original themes of Shakespeare’s play. The best example I can think of is how the simple ending image, the entire company laying onstage with their legs outstretched to the sky, encompassed the Prince’s words: “All are punish’d”. No one got away from the tragedy unscathed and that ending visual was so powerful.
I love Shakespeare and I love ballet, so the evening was already a win for me before it even started. What I didn’t expect, however, was to witness such a beautiful and fascinating new interpretation of the Romeo and Juliet story. It’s so fitting then, that the Swedish Royal Ballet changed the title to Juliette et Roméo; it’s the same story, just performed with a new twist.