It’s hard to think of any 20th-century ballet score more exhilarating than Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, composed in 1935. Ever since the critically acclaimed 1940 Kirov production of the ballet, choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky, any classical company worth mentioning has mounted this achingly romantic ballet based on William Shakespeare’s 1597 tragedy of star-crossed lovers.
Romeo is a Montague and Juliet is a Capulet. They fall in love amid a running feud between their families. Shakespeare set the scene: “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,”
The Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky created a new production of Romeo and Juliet for the National Ballet of Canada in 2011. Distinctly different from John Cranko’s R&J performed by the National Ballet from 1964, this production comes shorn of naturalistic elements, relying instead on Richard Hudson’s minimalist but emblematic, towering sets.
Given the splendid performance of the Prokofiev score by the National Ballet’s orchestra under the direction of David Briskin, Ratmansky’s decluttering lets the dancers and the music tell the story in vivid ways.
The opening scene featuring Guillaume Côté as a happy-go-lucky teenaged Romeo who is a reader – hence a dreamer – does the important work of establishing character. Compared with previous R&J productions, much more dancing with more challenging and quicker steps is going on here.
Romeo’s pals Mercutio and Benvolio soon join him and we see the bond among the three young companions. Jack Bertinshaw’s Mercutio is fleet-of-foot, playful and springs into the air like a jack-in-the-box. Skylar Campbell’s Benvolio matches him for agility but presents a more down-to-earth character.
It is up to Piotr Stancyzk as Tybalt to establish the enmity between the two families. He is all fire and fury, bounding into the town square as if his sword was already drawn.
The beauty of Hudson’s costuming in this R&J is that garments give immediate readings of who is a noble, who’s a peasant or servant; who’s allied to Montagues (red) and who’s with the Capulets (blue). The heavy renaissance gowns and robes of the lords and ladies make them move in a stately fashion.
In the square, friendly and not-so-friendly swordplay brings Lord and Lady Montague and their Capulet counterparts into the fray. It takes the commanding figure of the Duke of Verona (Jonathan Renna) to come in and demand peace for the sake of the city-state of Verona. As the square clears, two young corpses lay on the ground, much to the grief of their kinsmen and women.
Meanwhile, Elena Lobsanova as young Juliet attended in her bedroom by her beloved nurse (Lorna Geddes), is playful, barely more than a child. Her mother, a very effective Stephanie Hutchison as Lady Capulet, indicates it is time for Juliet to marry and soon a stiff-looking Paris (Ben Rudisin) will be introduced as her husband-to-be.
The Capulet ball, a crucial scene for Romeo and Juliet, is quite stripped down, favouring the encounter between Romeo and Juliet in a series of pas de deux and solos that emphasize their youth, naivete and, eventually, inner turmoil. Côté’s strength and attack is complemented with a tender side. Lobsanova’s willowy, fluid form gives a strong impression of being swept away on the wings of love.
The drama of the two characters is heightened in the scene after Romeo has killed Tybalt and comes to Juliet’s bedside. Romeo’s heart is heavy, not just because they must part, but with the knowledge he has eliminated Juliet’s cousin.
Similarly, as Friar Laurence, Peter Ottmann makes clear with a minimum of gestures the crisis-of-conscience he’s suffering.
Such dramatic moments throughout this Romeo and Juliet means a moving experience for the audience and what must be a very satisfying performance for the dancers.
Romeo and Juliet
Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky
Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Set and costumes by Richard Hudson; Lighting by Jennifer Tipton
Presented by the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, until March 22
Photo of Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova as Romeo and Juliet by Aleksandar Antonijevic