Northern Ballet kicks off its 45th year with Jean-Christoff Maillot’s bawdy and transgressive adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, set to Prokofiev’s 1935 score: equally modern and dynamic, 80 years on. In set and costume, their interpretation is unflinchingly minimalist. It’s staged between blank, curvilinear screens and a twisting central ramp, its summit Juliet’s ‘balcony’. Romeo has no need to scramble up the ivy, provided instead with a swirling pathway to her longing embrace. Likewise, the costumes are subtle and sparse, with monochrome ribbons and geometric masks; all strictly in keeping with the ballet’s modernist origins. Indeed, its illustrious heritage weighs heavily on any adaptation, and the many balletic versions of the play present a challenge to the creative choreographer. Nevertheless, Maillot succeeds in propelling Romeo & Juliet in unfamiliar directions.
The rivalry from which their romance erupts is overtly sexual. Adolescent Capulets pray hungrily on flowering Montagues and Tibalt’s wrath springs from tribal envy, as he battles to prevent the Houses cross-pollinating. They fight with machismo gesticulations and taunts, not daggers, and in the second act their bravado ascends metaphysical realms. Romeo stumbles across a puppet-show synopsis of the final act, and after Mercutio’s murder, he delivers Tybalt’s fatal blow with his wooden recreation. This device acts both as a prophesy of the events to follow and as a moment of ironic self-reflection, as the characters come into conflict with their representations. The dancers carry this complex set of scenes wonderfully, hurling pieces of the miniature set between them, catching, returning them, and grappling with one another in slow motion as the act reaches its climax.
Whereas in previous productions, Mercutio mediates the lovers’ dilemma, Maillot instead shines the spotlight on Friar Lawrence: he channels with intensity their fragmented emotions, from the opening scene to the ballet’s inevitable conclusion – unwittingly compelling them to self-destruction. Isaac Lee-Baker plays the Friar with expressive depth, and his interpolations, at beginning, middle and end, balance the narrative. At times, however, his performance threatens to overshadow the lead duo (Martha Leebolt and Guiliano Contadini). Both are convincingly passion-drenched, only their romance is occasionally peripheral to Lee-Baker’s captivating monodrama. But this is a small price to pay for an interesting shift in focus.
Above all, Northern Ballet’s production is super slick, and its well-selected cast carries the story vividly. Javier Torres’ Tybalt, darkly charismatic and imposing, and Sean Bates’ golden, rakish Benvolio contrast effectively; Leebolt and Contadini’s tentative romance blossoms delicately, as they draw together, twist away and mould, scene-to-scene. And as always, the Northern Ballet Sinfonia powers through Prokofiev’s electrifying score flawlessly, without distracting from the performers, or drowning out their shuffle and patter.
If you’re going to make it to a ballet this year, Romeo & Juliet will certainly not disappoint. For more information visit Northern Ballet’s website