Based on the work by: William Shakespeare
Choreographer: Jean-Christophe Maillot
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Reviewer: Tim Frost
Northern Ballet has a recent history of unusual and interesting productions, frequently using the stories from famous novels (The Great Gatsby; Jane Eyre; Wuthering Heights; all recent productions) to create new fusions of dance and music. For their contribution to the year of Shakespeare, the Leeds-based company decided to reproduce Jean-Christophe Maillot’s 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet, danced to Prokofiev’s famous score. Originally created for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, this is the first time it has been seen in the UK.
Everything about the production is pared down, from the large white, curving shapes which form the set, to the pastel shades of the costumes. The focus is very much on the dance movements, with unique character traits evident for the protagonists. It is fascinating to see how a choreographer can put their own stamp so clearly on each part of a well-known tale.
This is not a shy Juliet, sexually awakened by her Romeo, but one who is already in touch with her passions. The Nurse is nervy and unsure of herself, with jagged movements to illustrate, while the impulsive Tybalt runs across the stage. Friar Laurence is a ghostly presence right through, perhaps trying to halt the inevitability of his impending role in the unfolding events. Romeo’s motions indicate a dreamer, who is spellbound by the strong Juliet. Martha Leebolt and Giuliano Contadini are fabulous ‘star-cross’d lovers’, with acting skills to match their dancing. There is much humour, with frequently ribald innuendo added to a touch of slapstick.
At the start, a palace is projected onto the white set, and then the key personnel named, as though credits at the start of a film. This is a wonderful idea, although perhaps could have been used more during the performance. With such minimal set and costumes, the lighting plays a vital role in the unfolding plot. So when the white sets appear rose-coloured, during Act One, as though innocence is mingling with blood, there are hints of the tragedy to come. Later, hundreds of stars cover the stage, perhaps in reference to Shakespeare’s own words.
Sergei Prokofiev’s 1938 score contains, of course, one of the most famous moments in the whole orchestral canon, used incessantly at sporting events and on television for its contained violence (it’s the Apprentice theme). The wonderful music is here found in reduced scoring with a thinner string sound (due to the inevitable expense of a large orchestra: the original scoring calls for six horns, two mandolins and two harps, in addition to all the other standard instruments). The strings seem a bit stretched at times, particularly where the original music is lush. Some of the power is lost due to the small forces but surprising hints to American composers such as Aaron Copland, whose ballet Appalachian Spring was first heard six years after Romeo and Juliet, become evident as a result of the tighter sound world.
While watching, this reviewer found it hard to know whether indeed this was a great production. But having found it impossible to shake images and ideas from it out of his mind he is drawn to the idea of seeing it again, so has concluded that it must be!
Runs until Saturday 24 September 2016 and continues to tour | Image: Andy Ross