THE NORTHERN POWERHOUSE: Northern Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, Grand Opera House, Belfast, 28th September 2016

The MacMillan Romeo and Juliet is pretty much the definitive version and doesn’t lack for anything.  However, like the recent Scottish Ballet version of Swan Lake, I believe there is room in the world for at least two and the Northern Ballet’s one of them.  Over the years, I have witnessed many profound interpretations of classical literature from Northern Ballet and this is one to add to the cannon, although, in recent years, along with being named Europe’s top company, they have spread their wings and turned to top European talent, Le Ballet de Monte Carlo’s chief.  From my brief experiences of Jean-Christophe Maillot, World Ballet Day appearances and watching his highly entertaining version of The Nutcracker, he appears to be a choreographer of heart and soul with a deft touch for comedy and so it was with his Romeo and Juliet.  A sparse, mainly white set but lit theatrically and with cleverly moveable parts that added to the drama rather than detracted.  The ballet had a central thread with the character of Friar Laurence who was witness to key events of the piece.  Romeo is a dreamer, not interested in casual flirtation like his friends, Mercutio and Benvolio who are wide boys, great to be around if you are on their friend but insufferable if you are a Capulet.

I was privileged to see two performances, the first night cast with one of the greatest interpretive ballerinas of her time, Martha Leebolt and up and coming leading man, Guiliano Contadini.  It was difficult not to view this as possibly one of the last opportunities to see Leebolt on stage in Belfast, Mercutio was played on both occasions by Kevin Poeung who has been growing as a dramatic dancer for a few years and plays is an excitingly technically clean dancer plays Mercutio to perfection.  Mercutio is the ring-leader of this little gang, and is reckless in the pursuit of pleasure but is not reckless when it comes to fine ballet technique with high, split-leap jumps that are rapier sharp and personality to fill this theatrical role, it was an eye-catching performance.  The other key role is that of Tybalt.  Javier specialises in dark, moody characters with his Cuban-trained strong, technical dancing, he is a great interpreter.  For a lot of the ballet, Tybalt is rather restrained and the main influence for this is a sophisticated and haughty but glamorous, Lady Capulet.

Lady Capulet is danced by a very elegant, Lucia Solari with a cat-like movement and fluidity as she glides through the production barely disturbing the air but attracting attention through through the nobility of her presence.  She wants her daughter to follow her and marry a man of noble birth and tries to instil some of this elegance into her daughter and thrusts the hapless Paris forward who doesn’t make any ripples himself but his presence is little felt.  Juliet who we see for the first time, toying and playing with her Nurse is more like Lise from La Fille, wayward and full of joy and life. The interplay between Juliet and her Nurse is the heart relationship that she doesn’t get from her mother.  The sequence introducing Juliet and her Nurse is very playful and paints the picture of a very young girl who matures extremely quickly as she experiences all momentous life events in a matter of days.  In the dancing form of Martha Leebolt, we see the full blossoming of Juliet as she goes from childish games to first love to dramatic end.

Led by Mercutio, Romeo and Benvolio crash the Capulet ball to have a bit of fun and score some points off the hated enemy by invading their hallowed territory.  This is the moment the world’s most famous romance is born as the star-crossed lovers meet as Juliet, dressed as a vision in gold, catches his eye.  There is a lovely little sequence, where they take a break from the brightly lit ballroom and innocently explore their burgeoning love by touch and feel, an underused sensation in ballet but created a deep bond between our leads.  Unusually for the Northern Ballet, this was a much more grounded production, a lot of the exploration of this exciting and new love was done by touch and feel, like an external extension of the soul.  It was very beautiful and must have seen many hours in the studio for the dancers to perfect movements that are not naturally in the ballet repertoire.  The movements added to the tenderness of the the meeting and as the score builds, painting luscious pictures for the choreography to build upon until the audience are also carried along on this romantic rush.

Ingeniously, central to the staging, there is a white-painted ramp that lifts up to form Juliet’s balcony and the radiant Martha Leebolt, makes her appearance, to nearly the height of the proscenium arch, which gives a frisson of excitement, along with her usual mesmerising performance where you fully believe that she is in the first flush of youthful love, to form the balcony. In the matinee performance, Juliet was played by Miki Akuto who is also a fine dancer with great technique and her Romeo was Matthew Koon.  Matinees are where dancers with not so much experience get a chance to hone their performances and with their two most famous dancers, partly moving on, it is a great opportunity to view these dancers at an early stage of their career.  Romeo dances and leaps through the air to hang off the balcony, propelled magnificently by feats of love.  Juliet reappears and takes control after her reticence borne out of years of family strife to take control beckoning Romeo to lift her down and join the luscious music of this famous begin a pas-de-deux that had me transfixed from start to finish.  Again as the MacMillan balcony pas-de-deux is so iconic and in so many ways with the interpretation and storytelling is very reminiscent of the sort of work that the Northern Ballet would be most comfortable in with the lifts that they accomplish so well.  This is a more grounded and understated pas-de-deux as if their souls are being passed from one to the other through touch and gesture.  I was deeply moved and watched with rapt attention as the two dancers ended the first act with the audience thirsting for more.

The second half is where most of the action takes place and in innovation to the usual staging of ballet, inaction!  Maillot uses the dancers as if they are on pause and their stillness is so convincing, the only one moving is Friar Laurence who moves around and between the still figures, surveying the scene and prophesying what is to happen.  The fight to the death between Mercutio and Tybalt and Romeo and Tybalt is done in slow-motion which was really effective but also I am sure very difficult for the dancers to master.  They are used to being in control but to slow moves down and still make them look real and balletic, it must have taken incredible work in the studio.  However, I think the work lost some impact in the exclusion of any kind of weaponry and Romeo, passive throughout most of the work, is difficult to then see where the spark for murder came from, especially as Tybalt’s death is not as reactionary as picking up a blade and plunging it in, in the heat of the moment or even a heavy club!  This is done in a quirky and ingenious way as well.  I felt it lacked some key elements that are there for a good purpose and why Shakespeare’s works have transcended time, the ability to demonstrate the desperation of their love and the consequence for its discovery and why Friar Laurence sees so much hope in it.

Romeo flees to his new love, Juliet, whose cousin he has just killed and the two argue only to be reconciled in love as she leads him to the bed for their unconventional wedding night only to be awoken by her Nurse, surprised to see Romeo in bed.  Juliet’s nurse is always one of those loved characters who gives our heroine her lightness and spirit and not her mother, Lady Capulet who gives her daughter no visible love and just wants to see her making a good marriage.  This makes it easier for Juliet to defy her mother and seeks her heart which is more a mirror of the warmth of relationship that she has with her nurse.

The final scenes are pretty much done in contemporary ballet style, there are not pointe shoes or big costumes in sight.  Friar Laurence does his creeping through the scene as a marker of impending doom as the character feel implicated and powerless to stop.  Martha Leebolt was able to clearly demonstrate the anguish that Juliet goes through in such a short space of time, from youthful girl through to newly-wed, to grief to prospect of forced marriage to contemplating her own mortality and then really witnessing death first-hand.  The character of Juliet is the driving force for the partnership throughout and in many ways, with the puppyish Romeo, entranced by her is the architect of both their downfalls.  It is easier to take vengeance of a beloved friend whilst under the hot-blooded provocation of a sword fight but the death scenes are somewhat more cold-blooded and therefore don’t always fit with the arc of the story.  Sometimes, although clever and innovative, we know that Shakespeare is still relevant today with strife in the world but the ending of this, although danced excellently and told to such a high degree, there is a slight anti-climax that does not fit the soaring Prokofiev score.  However, this is still a fine work of ballet theatre, delivered to a thrilling standard of technique and drama and minor niggles aside that do not take away from the overall power and innovation of the work.

giualiano-contadini-as-romeo-and-martha-leebolt-as-juliet-photo-andy-ross-1200x861I cannot wait until the Northern Ballet return to these shores.  They have so many talented dancers who are rapier-sharp in their technique, strong in their jumps, soaring in their story-telling and interpretation of literature.  This runs deep through the company, it is not easy to tell who are the lower-ranked dancers and this bodes so well for their adventurous future.  I know that dancers appreciate the warmth of the audiences in Belfast and hope they continue to grow for this excellent company, not just fans of ballet but fans of the theatre as theatre is delivered to such a high standard.  I do hope our Northern friends return soon.  I just wish I had the courage to stand to my feet as some audience members did, to salute one of the world’s greatest interpretive ballerinas with a to-die-for technique, Martha Leebolt, who we may never see again in Northern Ireland.  On this run, I did not manage to see Tobias Batley dancing, although I have many times in the past and their partnership has been a big strength of this company and wish them very well and much success in the future.  Although I suspect that this future may lie on further shores than the UK or Europe, possibly.  Thank-you so much for your commitment to ballet and dance and touring ballet to parts of the UK that other companies do not tour to.

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