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.
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: