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National Ballet of Canada

'Romeo and Juliet'

by Kate Snedeker

March 11, 2009 -- Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

National Ballet of Canada’s first 2009 performance of Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet” had just a bit of triumph mixed in with the tragedy.  In addition to being the opening performance of the production, the evening marked a homecoming of sorts for soon-to-be principal dancer Jason Reilly.  Trained at the National Ballet of Canada, Reilly has spent his entire ten-year professional career at the Stuttgart Ballet.  A principal dancer there since 2007, he will be returning to Canada to join the NBoC as a principal starting in the 2009-2010 season.  Reilly is a dancer of astounding technical capability, but this production of “Romeo and Juliet” was a disappointingly flat platform to introduce his talents to Canadian audiences.

John Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet”, which debuted back in 1962, was the first of the currently widely performed productions of the ballet to be created.  Often cited (and pretty obviously) as the foundation and inspiration for Kenneth MacMillan’s acclaimed production, Cranko’s creation lacks the choreographic creativity and passion seen in his “Onegin”.  On this evening, the National Ballet of Canada dancers put out a stellar performance, but they were failed by the production itself.  Having seen this ballet only once before, and that more than two decades ago, it is hard to comment as to whether this may be due to the specifics of this production and/or the passage of more than 35 years since Cranko’s untimely death.

On the balletic stage, “Romeo and Juliet” must be a masterpiece of emotion that draws the audience into the tragic story.  Cranko’s choreography – especially to one raised on the MacMillan version – seems to be an unfinished sketch that perhaps would have been more completely realized if he’d had more years to keep playing with the ballet. In this production, the sense of being unfinished is reinforced by Susan Benson’s uninspired sets and costumes (not, I gather, the originals for this ballet).  The main set piece is a series of arches that split the stage front to back, and become balcony, crypt wall, bedroom windows and ballroom arches – none particularly effectively.  The splitting of the stage also creates a space between the set piece and the attractive backcloth of a city scene that is generally oddly empty.  The NBoC is not a particularly large company, and this production generally eschews the use of extras.  As a result, no matter how vibrant the dancing, the action on stage often seems to occur in an isolated island.

Compounding the problem are Benson’s washed out costumes and Robert Thomson’s ineffective lighting.  Benson chooses to use very similar colours for most of the Capulets and Montagues, and in the dim lighting it’s difficult to tell the families apart.  The resulting confusion robs the fight scenes of power.  Worse, Juliet’s dress is a light pink which does little to make her stand out from other women in the ballroom scene.  Thus, when Romeo and Juliet first meet in the ballroom scene, whilst Romeo’s snow-white tunic draws the eye, there’s nothing to make Juliet equally stand out.  What should be powerful moments get lost in the swirl of similarly coloured costumes.   Additionally, the early scene of Juliet’s transformation from girlhood to womanhood falls flat as there is little difference in her dresses before and after, and the tight, high bun of her opening scene is one of a mature woman, not a girl.

There seems to be an increasing trend in ballet towards dim lighting, and it certainly is apparent in this production.  Even when the front of the stage is relatively well lit, Thomson chooses not to fully light the back third of the stage behind the arches.  As a result, the ballet seems to exist in a perpetual twilight, even in the outside scenes that we want to see in all their bustle, joy, chaos, fun and tragedy.  Worse, the dim lighting hides some of the emotion in pivotal moments like the balcony scene and Juliet’s bedroom.

What was not lacking was the quality of the dancing.  Reilly and his Juliet, Greta Hodgkinson, were an elegant match, though – at least from the third ring – one never felt a real emotional connection (as much a fault of the choreography as anything).  Though the pair has not likely danced together before, they moved fluently and easily together.  Their balcony scene pas de deux progressed beyond steps into one long breath of choreography – it’s just that the choreography doesn’t quite achieve the emotion it needs.   Hodgkinson was probably pushing the limits of Juliet’s believability but has the experience to make the emotional transitions subtly and poignantly.  For his part, Reilly was less the boyish Romeo than some, but dropped jaws with his stunning technical abilities.  Some male dancers are flexible, some are powerful, but rarely do you see flexibility, power and control in one complete package.  Reilly is one of the rare ones.  In the balcony scene he threw off some double tours with his hands in fifth en haut that were jaw-droppingly high, unforced, fully rotated and gently landed.  He followed these with a double tour that landed without the slightest wobble in a beautifully stretched, high arabesque.  It was by far the most perfect example I’ve ever seen….  The term “technique to spare” must have been coined with Reilly in mind.  I am already excited to see him in “Onegin” in 2010 – that will be a performance not to miss!!

The partnership of Reilly and Hodgkinson has much to recommend it, but Cranko’s rush through the third act hardly gives them time to build up the emotion.  The bedroom scene seems oddly hurried, with a lack of care to the details that create the intimacy of emotion – the sheets completely un-mussed, the bed draped so as to reveal that it is also the stone in the crypt, and Romeo exit by drawing aside a curtain in one of the arches-doubling-as-windows – it sounded like a shower curtain.  Talk about a mood killer. 

More fatally – to use an appropriate word – Cranko seems to have taken his time to get through almost three acts only to go helter skelter through the penultimate final scene.   After Juliet is somewhat awkwardly lowered into the crypt, Romeo barely gets a minute to stab the also-visiting Paris and only a very, very short time to dance with Juliet’s seemingly lifeless body.  One of the most effective parts of MacMillan’s production is the extended pas de deux between Romeo and the unconscious Juliet.  This is a scene that should be heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching, tear-jerking – Prokofiev’s music cries out for the silent screams of eternal agony, and here there are none.  It’s a shame because Reilly and Hodgkinson have the experience and technique for such an emotional pas de deux.   I’ve seen dancers finish the ballet sobbing, but here they barely have time to work up that level of emotion.

Much should be said about the other dancers.  Richard Landry – who from my perch reminded me of a tall version of the actor Billy Boyd – was a genial Benvolio to Piotr Stanczyk’s good-natured ruffian of a Mercutio.  There seems to be a universal tendency for choreographers to milk Mercutio’s death, well, to death, but Stanczyk managed to keep the extended death scene from dipping into farce.  His technique is not quite so unforced as Reilly’s, but he deftly combines mime and dancing to create a character.   Landry, Stanczyk and Reilly were also a well-matched trio, especially impressive in the spot on synchronization during the series of side-by-side double tours and turns.  At one point, Reilly started doing different port de bras, and it was unclear whether this was intentional choreography for the centrally situated Romeo or an unintentional reversion by Reilly to choreography from another version.

Etienne Lavigne as Tybalt and Brett van Sickle as Paris were strong in roles that can often get lost in the shuffle.  Both are tall, elegant and solid partners when called upon – valuable traits for male dancers.  Cranko doesn’t fully flesh out the role of the nurse, but Victoria Bertram created a character both jolly and caring.  Friar Lawrence is equally as undefined a character here, but Kevin Bowles brought an air of benevolent mystery to the role.  Incidentally he was eerily reminiscent in looks and manner to Royal Danish Ballet character dancer Erling Eliason who has performed the same role in the Neumeier version of “Romeo and Juliet”.  There were disappointments in other character roles – a surprise given that the NBoC is one of a very few North American companies to employ dedicated character dancers.  Hazaros Surmeyan lacked gravitas as the Duke of Verona – in breaking up the fight between the Montagues and the Capulets, his mime seemed limp, and it was not until the final clenched fist that he seemed to command power.   As Lord Capulet, Tomas Schramek was also lacking in force – it is the power of his demand that Juliet must marry Paris that should in part make us believe she has no choice but to fake death to be with Romeo.  Here it was not so easy to believe.

It was hardly a tear-jerking end, but a performance that again demonstrates the depth of the NBoC roster.  The company is welcoming a fabulous dancer, and has talent to spare.  Yet, while one can understand the appeal of the Cranko production to a medium-sized company,  one hopes that the future will bring either changes to this production (turn up the lights!!!) or a new version of “Romeo and Juliet” to NBoC.

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