Goddesses, Wheat, Jewels and more!

So I realise that I haven’t updated for a while about how my performing and suchlike is going – that’s because I’ve been so busy with it all! Since January I’ve learnt a Pas de Quatre completely, performed it twice, am currently learning two pieces and soon will hopefully be learning a few more (including some new choreography)! Phewf! So here’s a run down of what I’ve been up to!

Pas des Déesses

This was the first piece I learnt with the ballet group and I’ve performed it a couple of times now. It is a Pas de Quatre for one guy and three ‘goddesses’ fighting for his attention – sounds fun, right? :) There’s an opening segment where I promenade the three girls and do a couple of assisted pas de chats (one Russian, one normal). Then we each have a variation (mine includes lots of grand jetés en tournant) and a closing segment by which point my character still can’t seem to decide who to pick so just picks all three girls. Awesome!

Me and my three gorgeous partners in Pas des Déesses

We’ve performed it a couple of times now at some charity performances. The first was at a local hospital’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit and the second at a residential home for people with dementia and learning disabilities. Obviously neither had a dedicated space for ballet so we had to modify the choreography a little – the first had a huge column in the middle of the room (wouldn’t want to kick that!) and the second was a really small thin/long room (so I nearly kicked one of my ‘goddesses’!).

They both went really well though and I thoroughly enjoyed performing for an audience. The two groups seemed to really appreciate us dancing for them and we got lots of reaction. In fact, while at the first performances some of the dancers mentioned how last year one of the patients had smiled for the first time since their accident when they saw the group perform. Yet more proof how magical ballet is!

Coppélia – Wheat Pas de Deux

Then a few weeks ago we started a new piece – the wheat Pas de Deux section from Coppélia. I had been picked to be Franz, Laura (one of my ‘goddesses from the Pas des Déesses) would be Swanhilda and she would have 12 ‘friends’.

If any of you don’t know the story of Coppélia then you might be wondering what wheat has to do with ballet. In this segment Swanhilda is doing that well-known(?!) test of shaking a piece of wheat to see if her boyfriend is truly in love with her. If she hears a rattle, he’s faithful and her soulmate. If it doesn’t then he’s a cheating cad she should ditch at the earliest opportunity. Makes perfect sense, right?!

Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz in the NYCB Coppelia Wheat Pas de Deux (Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik)

The choreography itself is really nice, set to the most gorgeous piece of music with a sublime solo violin line (see the embedded playlist near the end of this post). Whereas in Pas des Déesses the partnering mainly involved just arabesque pomenades (or attitude promenades if we don’t have much space!) this is ‘full-blown’ partnering. Starting with a one-arm attitude promenade it then has finger fouetté turns, penchées, a ‘high-five’ one handed penchée, assisted pirouettes and even a shoulder sit! And all while Swanhilda holds a piece of wheat in her hands – just to make our lives that little bit more difficult…

The shoulder sit in particular took a bit of practice. To start with, Laura didn’t really realise she had to jump as well as me lifting (she’s new to partnering too). With that sorted we were finding that although I could get her to shoulder level reasonably easily I couldn’t really get her ‘on’ my shoulder. We think we’ve sorted it out now, I was rising to early: I need to plié when I lift her but then wait to stand up until she is up there on my shoulder. It’s surprisingly hard to get the coordination right!

So the opening section is me and Swanhilda dancing together whilst her friends look on. After getting some very biased opinions from her friends, she decides that she can’t hear the wheat, throws it down at my feet and storms off stage. I pick up the wheat, give it a shake and hear a definite rattle (it’s been there all along I reckon) so run after her. Following this is a really nice section for Swanhilda’s friends, after which she re-enters with a bit of a chip on her shoulder which is a bugger for Franz but makes for some great dancing! I also watch on, taking the mick out of the girls at certain points and have a little solo for 8 bars where I’ve been told to fill it with “jumpy stuff”…

It’s a lovely little section and we’re hoping to put together a mini Coppélia suite – we’ve already got the Mazurkas, Swanhilda’s Act 1 variation, and a section between Swanhilda/Coppélia and Dr Coppélius.

Sleeping Beauty – Precious Stones Section

Another little ‘suite’ we’re putting together at the moment is the “Precious Stone Fairies” from Act III of Sleeping Beauty. It’s not always in every production (for example The Royal Ballet don’t have it but Paris Opera Ballet do and ABT used to) but it’s for four women representing different jewels and one guy who represents ‘gold’. As the dude I enter with Ms. Diamond, have a variation, a pas de deux section with Ms. Diamond then return back for the finale where I dance with all four women (woo!) including a highly amusing section where I ‘consider’ each one in turn, decide they’re not good enough and pretty much just chuck them to the side!

It’s all really fun but also really hard. We haven’t started any of the group bits but I’ve been working on my variation for a while now and it’s by far the toughest thing I’ve done in ballet. It’s a beasty 1:45 long and by about 30 seconds in I’m absolutely knackered! I’ve simplified things (toning down numbers of beats for the most part) but it still includes royales, entrechat trois’s, tour assemblés, grand fouettés followed immediately by adage fouettés, grand jetés en manége, grand saut de basques en manége and it finishes with a grand battement to á la seconde, brought in to a retiré then down to relevé fifth. I don’t even get to come down from relevé when the music stops!

It might sound like I’m complaining but I’m actually relishing the challenge. Without pushing myself I’ll never improve and I’ve now learnt the choreography I’m working on making it look good. I can mark the variation along to the music but can’t do it ‘properly’ at full-speed. Hopefully with lots of practice I’ll get there…

Here’s a clip of the closing segment of the Jewel Fairies from the POB version. Although Nureyev altered the choreography a little it’s still close to the original Petipa (I believe) and is close to what we’ll be doing. I’m looking forward to throwing those girls around! ;)

Brand New Pas de Deux

Next up is something that’s rather exciting. Sat in the pub after ballet one week (a post-3-hour-class-and-rehearsal pint is possibly the best thing in the world, by the way!) one of the girls mentioned that she’d been planning on choreographing a new pas de deux (to some modern music) and wanted to know if would be interested in dancing it with her. So she wanted me to be part of creating a new piece? I think I might have scared her with how quickly I said yes!

We haven’t started working on it yet (been too busy with Coppélia and shows) but hopefully we’ll be starting soon. I’ve never seen the choreographic process ‘in action’, never mind being an actual part of it, so am really excited to see what it’ll be like. And by the end of it I’ll have another piece in my repertoire.

My own piece – Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, Second Movement

Talking of choreography, I’ve been working on my own piece; working on it in my head at least. You’ll have probably noticed in recent blog posts and on twitter that I’m a little bit obsessed with Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, in particular the Second Movement which is entitled “O land of gloom, O land of mist!”. It’s such an emotive piece of music and it is, in my eyes (or rather ears), crying out for some choreography.

As such, I’ve been working on some ideas and currently have some (theoretical) choreography to the last 4 minutes of the 11 minute long piece. It’s a Pas de Quatre for two couples: one relatively young and playful, the other older and more restrained. I’m unsure yet to the specifics but I think they represent the same people at different stages of their life. Walking through a wood they stop for a moment to rest and get swept up in some dance. As the piece concludes (the bit I’ve choreographed in my head) their love for one another overcomes them and they dance filled with passion, expressing their eternal devotion. Finally, they take each other’s hands and stroll off into the dusk, leaving the glade in stillness.

Or, at least, that’s the idea! Like I said, this is all theoretical and I haven’t actually worked with any dancers yet. I’m still waiting to hear back about the summer course I applied to, but it includes some choreography sessions so hopefully I will be able to work on it then. If not, I might bring it up with the ballet group and see if some other dancers would be willing to let try some parts out on them.

Coppélia – Wedding Pas de Deux

Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin in Balanchines Coppelia (San Francisco Ballet, Photo credit: Erik Tomasson)

I said earlier how we were building up a little Coppélia suite. Well a while back one of the dancers in the group asked if I’d be interested in doing the Coppélia Wedding Pas de Deux with her. I was a bit flabbergasted – why would she want to do it with me?! My technique is obviously not great and she is quite a bit better than me (a HUGE understatement). But she asked me anyway and I said I’d love to, as long as I’m good enough. As of yet we haven’t started working on it as we’ve both been busy learning other stuff.

Whereas the Wheat Pas de Deux is a couple of minutes of proper partnering, this is a full blown classical pas de deux. That means a full opening adage partnered section (with a gorgeous violin line accompanying throughout) followed by individual variations and a coda to top it all off. The girl who asked me is pretty damn amazing (she recently did a Kitri variation from Don Q that left me speechless) so I want to wait a little until I’m a bit better so I don’t look ridiculous next to her. It’s a little intimidating but hopefully in a little while I’ll be able to give it a go. I’ve been working on my Finis Jhung “Boy Ballet Dancer” DVD and covering some “guy moves” with the ex-Pro after class (my tours en l’air are currently at 1 and a half turns!) which is definitely helping.

I’ve embedded a playlist below that includes the music for both the Wheat Pas de Deux and Wedding Pas de Deux from Coppélia. I’m sure you’ll agree it really is stunning music – let’s hope I can do it justice!

Breaking News! Petruchka

While I was writing this post (literally!) I received an email from the ballet group saying I should start working on a new solo! It’s going to be a section from Petrushka which, as far as I know, is about a doll from a carnival show. Although he’s a puppet he also feels human emotions, is imprisoned between shows by his owner and is in love with a ballerina doll. Unsurprisingly for a ballet there is no happy ending, Petrushka gets killed by a rival lover of the ballerina and rises as a ghost to haunt his former owner until the end of his days. Happy stuff!

The music is by Stravinsky and I’m hoping to adapt some of the original Fokine choreography to make a nice little solo. Much like the doll in Coppélia there’ll be a bit of flexed feet and jerky movements to really get into the doll-feeling. Should be fun! Here’s a clip of the Bolshoi Academy doing the first scene from Petrushka:

That’s it! (I think…)

So that’s all what I’ve been up to! I’ve learnt one piece fully, performed it twice, am currently learning another two pieces, will hopefully be starting to learn another three pieces soon and might even do some of my own choreographing if I can find some time! On top of that, I’ve found another couple of local adult classes which brings my weekly tally up to five (my RAD Intermediate class, two before rehearsal with the ballet group and these two new ones). Oh, and I guess I shouldn’t forget the whole Computer Science PhD malarky… I like to keep myself busy :)

Are any of you readers performing? What pieces are you doing? Pop a message in the comments box below to let me know!

Until next time, keep dancing!

Polyphonia/Sweet Violets/Carbon Life: A triple bill with a bit of everything!

Dame Monica Mason is certainly ending her reign as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet with a bang! She commissioned not one, but two brand new pieces for this Triple Bill (one by Liam Scarlett and the other by Wayne McGregor) and placed them alongside Wheeldon’s Polyphonia. I was fortunate enough to see this Triple Bill twice, on opening night and partway through the run. This way I also managed to see the two casts for Polyphonia and the Scarlett (the McGregor only had one cast).

The Royal Ballet Triple Bill as seen through various pictures in the program.


I think each of the three pieces deserved repeat viewings and all improved for it. Here are my thoughts on them.

Polyphonia (choreography: Wheeldon, Music: Ligeti)

Opening Cast: Benjamin, Stix-Brunell, Choe, Mendizabal, Kish, Dyer, Campbell, Trzensimiech

It is astonishing to think that this piece came from Wheeldon when he was so young (it was premiered in 2001 at New York City Ballet) and shows his ‘plotless’ chops are just as strong (if not stronger) than the narrative ones he recently showed with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice has hints of Balanchine (notably in the White Rabbit solo and the Apollo pastiche at the Tea Party) but Polyphonia showed just how influenced Wheeldon was by the founder of NYCB.

The first cast showed off the young members of the company. Alexander Campbell and Dawid Trzensimiech seemed to have a lot of fun in their dazzling ‘Vivace Energico’ section together, showing off their skills. The pair always impress me in whatever roles they dance and I hope they get some big chances in the coming season. Beatriz Stix-Brunell showed us again (after her triumphant début in Alice) how she can command a stage.

My only query about the casting for the opening night was the pairing of Leanne Benjamin and Nehamiah Kish. Superb dancers individually, the minute Benjamin was dwarfed by the towering Kish to a slightly jarring extent.

A fascinating piece overall, building on classical foundations to produce a fresh and modern piece. Oh, and did anyone else spot the flamingos or the start of the caterpillar (minus belly rubs, thankfully) from Alice?

Alternate Cast: Lamb, Naghdi, Choe, Raine, Stepanek, Hay, Ondiviela, Trzensimiech

Lamb and Stepanek in Polyphonia (Photo credit: Dave Morgan for DanceTabs)

I thoroughly enjoyed a repeat viewing of Polyphonia, appreciating it even more second time around. The only section I disliked (both times) was the opening movement – appropriately called ‘Désordre’ – which I found too cluttered.

I much preferred the partnership of Sarah Lamb and Johannes Stepanek who danced the two pas de deuxs superbly. In the few pieces I’ve seen Lamb in, she always seems to bring out the athleticism of ballet which I thought really enhanced her sections. I’m not sure whether I’d be able to see past that athleticism in a more ‘traditional’ role but I really like it in the abstract pieces she’s been in.

Reprising his role from the first cast, Trzensimiech once again shone and Yasmine Naghdi (just an Artist like Stix-Brunell) handled her solo with aplomb. I have no doubt Wheeldon’s Polyphonia will be around for many years to come.

Sweet Violets (choreography: Scarlett, Music: Rachmaninoff)

Opening Cast: Kobborg, Cope, Soares, Bonelli, Cojocaru, Morera, Rojo, McRae

When I saw Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows earlier in the season I was blown away; so much so that following the matinee I immediately purchased a ticket for the evening performance that same day. I was therefore excited to see Scarlett’s first foray into narrative ballet.

Inspired by the enigmatic Walter Sickert and his series of paintings ‘The Camden Town Murder’, Scarlett had set himself a tall order: recreate 19th Century London and tell a little-known story. Did he rise to the challenge? For me it was a near-resounding yes and, more importantly perhaps, he showed the potential to be one of the most exciting choreographers currently creating pieces.

Whilst not a perfect work, Scarlett has created a dark, tense and gripping short work set intimately with Rachmaninoff’s ‘Trio Élégiaque'; the music fitting so well that you could easily be mistaken into thinking the music had been commissioned specially for this piece.

Scarlett could hardly have gotten two more stellar casts to work with. The opening night featured an astonishing seven principals out of the eight named parts, with First Artist Leanne Cope sharing the stage with the big names listed above. Not only picking great dancers, but great actors too it seemed a shame that some characters got woefully short time in the spotlight. Kobborg played the role of Sickert and was the lynchpin that kept the drama and tension alive, especially in the final scene with Cojocaru and McRae.

Kobborg and Cojocaru in Sweet Violets (Photo Credit: Bill Cooper for The Guardian)


Opening with a tense encounter between Soares and Cope, culminating in Cope’s murder, Scarlett hinted strongly at the influence of MacMillan. Echoed throughout the piece Scarlett masterfully used not only the dancer but also the set; bed, mirror and wall becoming part of the choreography. Scarlett played to the strengths of his cast: Kobborg and Cojocaru’s chemistry, Rojo’s dominance of the stage, Bonelli’s boyish charm, Morera’s acting abilities, Soares’ (surprising) dark side, Cope’s coquettish confidence, and McRae’s virtuosity.

The great set (albeit a little too dark from the Amphitheatre) accompanied Scarlett’s choreographic voice. I agree with the comments that some pre-reading of the plot is beneficial and without it the plot may be unclear (for example who Christopher Saunders was playing – the Prime Minister – and why he was present). But I see a simple way to rectify this problem: extend it to full-length!

Alternate Cast: Gartside, Hinkis, Whitehead, Cervera, Morera, Cope, Nuñez, Campbell

Possibly because I already knew the general narrative of the piece, I was moved even more by Sweet Violets on a second viewing. I noticed more details, felt like the characters resonated more and appreciated Scarlett’s genius to a greater degree.

Bennet Gartside immersed himself into Sickert’s character, easily rising to the high bar that Kobborg had set. In particular, the final scene spoke of a man who had lost control of ‘something’ (in my eyes represented by Campbell’s character, ‘Jack’). There was a haunting look in his eyes, hinted during the preceding scene with Leanne Cope’s Annie (again, Cope showed a maturity betraying her years and rank). As expected, Nuñez was superlative as Sickert’s model Marie, her presence commanding your attention throughout her time on stage.

Sweet Violets had indeed matured on a second viewing and, on reflection, I think I preferred the alternate cast. With some burning simages (Sickert’s bloody handprint on the porcelin sink, the `backstage` view of the dance hall stage) Scarlett has evoked Victorian London perfectly.

I certainly hope Sweet Violets will be revived soon, and stay in the Royal Ballet repertory for many years. But, more than anything, I hope Scarlett gets a chance to extend the piece to full length: to talk more of Eddy and Annie’s relationship, allow for more solo scenes (with ‘Jack’ lurking in the dark perhaps) and to let us deeper into Sickert’s head and psyché. There are so many possiblities and I hope O’Hare lets Scarlett share his gift with us all in the coming years. I’m already excited to see Viscera, which Scarlett created for Miami City Ballet this year and will be in the upcoming Royal Ballet season. Below is a clip from “Royal Ballet Live” which shows Scarlett rehearsing Soares and Cope and lets us have a glimpse into his genius mind!

Carbon Life (choreography: McGregor, Music: Ronson et al)

Cast (for all performances): Bracher, Stix-Brunell, Calvert, Cowley, Cuthbertson, Dyer, Hamilton, Hirano, Kay, Lamb, mcRae, Nuñez, Naghdi, Ondiviela, Stepanek, Underwood, Watson, Watkins

Musicians: Ronson, Boy George, Fisher, Mosshart, Pierce, Wyatt, Cobain, Senti, Silver, Chetwood

And now for something completely different! A new work by Wayne McGregor in collaboration with musical polymath Mark Ronson and fashion designer Gareth Pugh (nope, never heard of him either but he’s supposedly a big deal!) it would be accompanied by a live band, singers and even a rapper. This was ballet like never before.

Cutbertson and Underwood in Carbon Life (Photo Credit: Bill Cooper)


Starting as glowing figures behind a gauze screen (this didn’t quite work from up in the Amphitheatre, but looked good from Stalls Circle Standing) the pieces seems to chronicle the evolution of a species from embryonic state to some sort of humanoid beings.

The choreography was trademark McGregor – contortions, tic-like movements and sharp changes in position. But for me the most memorable and enjoyable segment was the most classical. When the lights turned on for the first time all 18 dancers were revealed in two flanks, organised by sex but dressed in similar clothing (small black boxer shorts and flesh tank tops for the ladies) with slicked back hair completing the androgynous look. As the band starts up (“Is anyone out there?”) the dancers move through a series of classical positions with speed and exactness. Working precisely with the strong beat of the music they are lika textbook demonstration of placement – an army of world-class dancers.On the other hand, there were sections of choreography that left me a little nonplussed – some rather obvious monkey-like loping around the stage for example.

The music was great – Ronson at his best – and the Royal Opera House was truly rocking, which suited McGregor. I’ve noticed that McGregor seems to choreograph to a ‘beat’ rather than the ‘music’, so the strong constant rhythms of the songs worked well. I was also shocked how well rap works alongside ballet! You can listen to one of the tracks (with Boy George on vocals) here:

Although androgynous, and sometimes obscured by Pugh’s bizarre costumes (not a fan of the weird pointe boots or dodecagonal tutus), there were certain dancers that stood out. Olivia Cowley may only be a First Artist but she strutted with confidence during her pas de deuxs with Ed Watson, and matched his fascinating body with he own amazing moves. McRae showed off his immense talent in a solo during the penultimate song and the trio of female principals: Cuthbertson, Lamba and Nuñez, showed just how spectacular they can be in any role they are given.

I rather doubt Carbon Life will be revived – I doubt they will be able to secure the musicians for another run and it would be nowhere near the same without the live music. This is a shame as, even with all its flaws, it was a hugely enjoyable and ‘fun’ piece. I think it is great that the Royal Opera House took a risk in staging something so different to the norm.

Summary

All in all, this was a fantastic triple bill. From the classicism (or rather neo-classicism I guess?) of Polyphonia to the high-drama and tension of Sweet Violets to the sheer overwhelming energy of Carbon Life this really did have it all. Personally my favourite piece was Sweet Violets by a mile (which is not to say the others were bad; far from it in fact!). The more I see of Scarlett’s work the more I want to see. He has a very exciting future ahead (his first full-length piece premiering next season in the Linbury) and I hope the Royal Ballet see sense and appoint him a Resident Choreographer before someone else snaps him up! (I’m looking at you Ms. Rojo…)

Unfortunately, due to my delayed review (I blame work and performing!) the run of the Triple Bill has just finished. But I am sure both Polyphonia and Sweet Violets will be revived very soon – and I’m hoping the Royal Opera House recorded Carbon Life to release on iTunes.

Did you see the triple bill? What did you think? Which of this triumvirate was your favourite? Let me know in the comments below!

Until next time, keep dancing!

The Magic of Ballet Music

There’s one thing you can’t really have ballet without. Music.

Sure, there are times in ballets (especially more modern works) where there is a choreography section done to silence, but I can’t imagine a full-length three-act narrative ballet without a score, can you? Part of the magic for me (and what immediately identifies great dancers) is when choreography is danced not just alongside the music but with the music.

Thinking about this, I started to create a playlist of my favourite bits of music from ballets, calling it (the rather unimaginative name) “A Night at the Ballet”. But I am well aware of the fact that I haven’t seen nearly enough ballets for it to be even close to comprehensive, so I decided to get some help from my Twitter and Facebook followers! After a deluge of responses (helped along by a retweet by the Royal Opera House) my playlist started to take shape.

It was really interesting to see people’s choices, and even more so to see their reasons. Some picked pieces because of the music itself, whereas others seems to base their choices on the linked choreography too. There’s a load of replies on my Facebook Page if you want to have a read. I tried to keep my playlist from getting too big, so some tracks didn’t make it. But I’ve tried to include at least one choice from everyone!

So here it is (by the magic of Spotify)…

There isn’t really an order to the playlist, and it keeps growing and growing! I’ve opened with Serenade (in my opinion the most beautiful ballet music ever) and followed this by some fairly well-known pieces that were suggested (often multiple times): we’ve got a bit of Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Dying Swan and so on. As the playlist goes on you’ll find a few more ‘obscure’ pieces: bits of Prince of the Pagodas, Daphnis et Chloë, Danses à Grande Vitesse and others.

And then I’ve finished by cheating slightly… Sorry! The final track is the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony. I’ve never seen a ballet choreographed to this symphony (although I think Peter Martin’s used it for a piece at NYCB in the early 80’s), but I’ve included it because whenever I hear it I think there should be choreography set to it. It is so emotive and passionate! In fact, I’ve already been working (in my head) on a Pas de Quatre to the final 4 minutes or so of this movement. I’ve applied to a summer intensive (keeping my fingers and fifth position crossed!) which includes a chance to work on choreography so I’m hoping to maybe expand it there (and who knows, if it goes well I could maybe get the ballet group in Bristol to perform it!).

Talking of choreography, when you listen to ballet music do you ‘see’ the choreography? I personally find it hard to disassociate memorable choreography with music – for example the transition from “Romeo’s Variation” to “Love Dance” in R&J balcony scene (that gorgeous moment when Juliet finishes her pirouette with a grande rond de jambe into arabesque). I also didn’t particularly enjoy listening to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring until I saw ENB perform MacMillan’s amazing choreography to it. Now the thought of their dancing makes me enjoy the music so much more.

But it doesn’t have to be set choreography: I talked to a friend at ballet this week who said whenever she listens to classical music she imagines dancing to it but not specific steps (more the general ‘lilt’ to the piece). Whereas her husband (a musician) listens more to little details in the piece, or a specific instrument in orchestral works.

So do you listen to music differently after seeing a ballet to it? What’s your favourite piece of ballet music? Did I miss it off my playlist? Let me know in the comments below!

Until next time, keep dancing!

P.S. This whole post was inspired by me stumbling across this video. It’s of an elderly man in a care home who shows a remarkable increase in response after listening to his favourite music. It reminded me how important music can be. And on a related note, our ballet group performed at a local brain injury rehabilitation unit and it was amazing to see the reactions from the patients to the dance. Last year when the group had performed there, one of the patients had smiled for the first time in a year!

Romeo & Juliet: A Retrospective

I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to see the Royal Ballet perform Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet four times this season. I consider myself even luckier to have seen such stellar performances from some of the Royal Ballet’s best dancers. I saw three casts, watched from three different parts of the Royal Opera House, once in the cinema, saw twenty main characters die, heard goodness knows how many sword clashes, saw one sword snap mid-fight and cried more than a few (manly) tears.

I’ve never seen a single ballet so many times and I hadn’t planned on seeing Romeo & Juliet so much, but after the first performance I knew I needed to see more of this masterpiece. What came to surprise me however, was how differently each cast would interpret these characters, and how my various viewpoints would dictate my reactions and focus.

The first pair I saw perform the eponymous roles were Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg. A real-life couple and a pair of veritable superstars, this season was probably their final performances of Romeo & Juliet at the Royal Opera House. As such there was a bittersweet feel to their performances which heightened their connection to the audience, many of whom have seen the couple develop over their impressive careers. Cojocaru’s Juliet was young and impish, highlighting the extreme youth of the character in the first Act. Kobborg, on the other hand, seemed to give Romeo a hint of maturity, portraying a youth at the threshold of manhood. Needless to say, both were spectacular. Their balcony scene had me wiping away a tear or two before the first act had even finished. There was a particular moment in the final scene where Cojocaru’s Juliet tried to lift Kobborg’s late Romeo from the floor for a final dance. I imagine this image will stick with me for a very long time – her futile effort was one of the most heart-wrenching things I have seen on stage. This performance also featured the fantastic Bennet Gartside as Tybalt (a role I’d see him in thrice), pulling off pure-evil remarkably well and making me very excited for his Von Rothbart debut in October. His fight with Kobborg was actually terrifying (even from standing in the stalls circle) and I was worried someone would get hurt as the pair threw themselves completely into the situation. Valentino Zucchetti also gave a particularly assured turn as lead Mandolin player, finishing his first turn in high a la seconde with an absurd amount of control.

Cuthbertson and Bonelli in the Balcony Scene (Photo credit: Bill Cooper for the ROH)

I saw Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli perform the ballet twice, once at the Royal Opera House (their first time performing the roles together) and once in a cinema at Bath as a worldwide live-relay. Cuthbertson was originally meant to be partnered by Sergei Polunin but, after his shock resignation, he was replaced by Bonelli. I went into their performance wondering how they would work together; the answer, it turns out, was some of the most electric chemistry I’ve seen on stage. Cuthbertson’s Juliet truly transformed through the ballet, visibly maturing and growing. Bonelli’s Romeo was bursting with energy and passion, adding an impulsiveness that makes you begin to understand his fierce retaliation to his friend’s death. Together, they just worked perfectly: when Cutbertson’s Juliet first lays eyes on Bonelli’s Romeo it makes you believe in love at first sight (even from the back row of the amphitheatre). Technically superb, the pair built on this with some of the best acting in the entire company to create something magical – I am excited to see their partnership develop through other roles (they are already cast for Swan Lake together in October and have danced Alice together thrice this season). This cast also featured my favourite Mercutio-Benvolio double act of Alexander Campbell and Dawid Trzensimiech. The Pas de Trois with Bonelli’s Romeo before the Capulet’s Ball was first-class and tight-knit followed by great solo’s later in Act I. In fact, Campbell’s Mercutio was the only one I saw which moved me when in the throes of death. I think they are two of the most exciting up-and-coming male dancers in the company and I look forward to seeing them develop and tackle larger roles in the near-future. Kristen McNally also deserves a mention for playing the Nurse perfectly, adding another great acting role to her, already fit-to-bursting, repertoire.

My third viewing was the same Cuthbertson/Bonelli cast, this time at my local Odeon with some ballet-newbie friends. I was skeptical of how the atmosphere of the ballet would transfer to the silver screen but, although I would perhaps have changed a couple of camera angles, I think it was overall a success. At times I didn’t like having my focus dictated (I missed the banter between Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio when they’re drinking wine at the market) but it allowed me to see some things I missed from the amphitheatre. It also showed just how fine the leading pair are as actors, not just dancers. At the end of Act III, Scene I, Juliet decides to go to the Friar to ask for the fateful potion. As she makes this decision she simply sits on the end of her bed while the orchestra plays. With a close-up shot of Cuthbertson’s face I could almost see her thoughts racing and the tumult of emotions going through her head. Then, a single tear dropped down her right cheek and I was sent reeling; Cuthbertson truly is a national treasure. I hope they release a DVD of this truly special performance; I know that if they do I will be first in line to buy it.

My final Romeo & Juliet was Ed Watson and Leanne Benjamin which I saw from the front row of the stalls (thanks to a rather amazing person – you know who you are!). I was pleasantly surprised to find that Watson and Benjamin produced such a different version of the roles. There was what I can only describe as a ‘sharpness’ to their movements which gave an urgency to the story. As if these young lovers were being swept up by events beyond their control. Watson showed that his acting is as good as his (ridiculously amazing) arabesques, his shock at killing Tybalt physically shaking him to his core. Benjamin must also have the Fountain of Youth hidden away in her dressing room, easily appearing the youngest on stage (and although I would never reveal a woman’s age, she is the longest serving principal at the Royal Ballet). We were spoilt by another fine Tybalt in Gary Avis and a particularly haunting Lady Capulet by Genesia Rosato. Thomas Whitehead’s Paris displayed more backbone than others’, seemingly close to striking Benjamin’s Juliet just before she agrees to marry him. I preferred this to the more-traditional submissive and accepting Paris and it made me less remorseful when he is killed by Romeo in the Capulet Crypt. Sitting in the front row was truly inspirational and I will be trying to channel what I saw in my upcoming classes (although I can only dream of having such superb technique!).

All in all, my Romeo & Juliet season has been an emotional rollercoaster taking me each time from pure joy and elation to the depths of emotion and heartbreak. MacMillan’s genius shines throughout the whole piece including the singularly beautiful Balcony Scene. I cannot think of another section of ballet that evokes such a response from me every time I view it. I think it would be my ‘dream’ piece to dance: Romeo’s variation is brimming with joy and hope, the transition into the partnering section (where Juliet finishes a pirouette by opening into an arabesque) is so beautiful and Romeo’s sequence of rises on his knees with Juliet overhead seems to perfectly express the feeling of love and its ability to make you float on air. If you’ve never seen this scene before then here’s a superb video of Miyako Yoshida and Steven McRae (watch out in particular for 4:05 and 6:15):

Romeo & Juliet is not programmed for next season (which is shaping up to be fantastic: including Swan Lake, La Bayadere, Onegin, Mayerling and some very exciting triple bills) but I will be getting my next major MacMillan-fix in a couple of months time with Prince of the Pagodas. Created on Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope I can barely contain my excitement at seeing Nunez/Kish and (a week later) Cuthbertson/Pennefather tackle this modern-day classic.

Did any of you catch Romeo & Juliet at the Royal Opera House this season? Any opinions on your favourite interpretations of the famous roles? Let me know in the comments box below!

Until next time, keep dancing!

P.S. As a special treat, here’s the balcony scene from the recent live-relay with Cuthbertson/Bonelli. I’m sure you’ll agree they are something truly special – sit back, enjoy and prepare to be moved: