I had the pleasure of seeing Richmond Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet twice this weekend. Once last night and once tonight. I’ve never seen a ballet of Romeo and Juliet, so I went into it without any expectations, aside from having heard the Prokofiev score once or twice. The version performed by the Richmond Ballet was choreographed by ballet master Malcolm Burn, initially for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and brought to Richmond Ballet in 1995. The experience spurred some thinking on the play, on dance itself, on the ways in which movement and language are similar and the ways in which they are very different.
Before I start to “divide it inventorially,” I should say that I adored the entire production from start to finish. I walked away feeling like there was no conceivable way it could have been improved upon. Seeing the show twice gave me the opportunity to pay closer attention to a wider range of features and each time I noticed something new it was something I loved.
People often expect that because I am so serious about my Shakespeare, that I will be finicky and critical about the ways in which it is adapted, performed, or interpreted. A friend who danced in the show said that she was worried that the show might not live up to my expectations. While I don’t think of myself as uncritical, I do think that when it comes to Shakespeare I am easily pleased. I think that Shakespeare is so wonderful that it’s rare for me to see a piece of art related to Shakespeare and not enjoy it.
While I’m not of the opinion that an adaptation has to stay meticulously close to the action of the text to be successful, beautiful, or true to the spirit — I’m not one of those insufferable people who nitpicked about the colour of Harry Potter’s eyes in the films — I did rather enjoy how precisely this production followed the Shakespearean text. I stopped counting how many times a step, or a movement brought a very specific line of dialogue to my mind. It felt like Burn created this ballet with a copy of the full text of the play in his hands and not just a synopsis. Mercutio doesn’t just taunt Tybalt, he plays his sword like a lute, bringing to mind Mercutio’s jab about he and Romeo being minstrels.
I was truly dazzled by how linguistic the performance felt, and it made me curious about whether that is the case with other adaptations by other choreographers. Is it normal to hear the words in the steps?
What struck me beyond the linguistic elements was just how much the show emphasized the more masculine, physical, and violent side of the story. You can play R&J a lot of ways and I certainly walked into the show expecting a lot in the way of romantic pas de deux and minimal sword-fighting and carousing between Mercutio and Benvolio. What I got was the exact opposite. Of course there were romantic pas de deux, but the show focused much more on the oppressive violence that serves as the backdrop for the romance. The fight choreography itself as among the best I’ve ever seen on stage and to think of it being done only as one element of a much larger and even more physical performance was impressive. Tybalt shown brightest here, which is appropriate. The dancer playing Tybalt had the bearing that I wanted, humourless, uncompromising, ostentatious and imposing.
Two different couples played Romeo and Juliet, alternating evenings. Because I saw the show two nights, I was able to watch both pairs and see each of their individual perspectives on the same choreography. I felt like the two Juliets were more different in their approach than the two Romeos. But of course I say this as someone without extensive technical ballet expertise. Both of the dancers were incredibly impressive and talented and I think that their respective performances showed a dichotomy of thinking about Juliet as a character. I think that having such different takes on the character opened up the ambiguity and room for interpretation that I have always loved about reading Shakespeare.
There are those who read Juliet as a relatively normal young girl. She is 13, inexperienced, sheltered, and overwhelmed by the circumstances she is thrust into in the course of one day. Her parents have introduced the idea of marrying her to Paris, which she isn’t necessarily opposed to, and suddenly she encounters Romeo who throws her entire world into chaos. This was Cody’s Juliet. Naive, inexperienced, overwhelmed, passionate. If I had never seen Cody before, I would have believed that she was perhaps 18 based on her performance. She was light, soft, ethereal. A delicate bird.
I have never seen Juliet as naive or overwhelmed, however. Of course she is young and inexperienced, but she is also brilliant, creative, determined, and self-possessed. Valerie played Juliet with much more self-assuredness.
Something that I noticed more in Valerie’s performance was a distinct shift in her tone and movement at key points in the ballet. Prior to meeting Romeo, Juliet is visibly buoyant, effervescent, bouncy, playful. Her opening pas with her Nurse show a young woman full of life. But for me, there was a distinct change in her movements at the ball after meeting Romeo. Her dances become much stronger, more sensuous, more mature. She loses a little bounce and gains a lot of smoothness. This transition was extremely noticeable in Valerie’s performance but not as much in Cody’s.
There’s a second change, after her meeting with Friar Laurence when both dancers stiffened, their movements strained and painful. There’s so much fear that goes along with the possibility of taking a potion strong enough to make you appear dead for days. Will I wake up at all? Will I wake up on time? If this knocks me out for too long will even the Friar think I’m truly dead? Will I have brain damage when I wake up? Being given the potion and then returning to fake submission to an abusive father, this is another turning point for Juliet and her steps reflect that. Her arms are tight, stiff, she is stretched out upon the “tough rack of this world.”
The shining moment for Romeo is in the tomb scene. After killing Paris he finds Juliet’s body and cannot believe that she is dead. In a physically impressive display, he lifts Juliet and tries to dance with her. Throughout the ballet he and Juliet have performed signature movements together, and when he finds her body he tries to put her through those movements. Throwing her into the air and being crushed when she doesn’t catch in his arms, but slides through them. The moment of trying desperately to believe that Juliet is still alive but unable to make her respond is heart-rending. This is one of two moments when I felt like the ballet matched, if not exceeded, the pathos of the language.
The other is another dance of denial. After Tybalt mortally wounds Mercutio, Mercutio continues trying to taunt Tybalt, continues trying to flirt with the harlots in the market, continues trying to fight, but loses more and more of his strength until he can barely stand, much less twirl his sword playfully or bandy with Tybalt. Watching Mercutio’s strength disappear before your eyes is the only other moment in the ballet that reaches the height of feeling in Romeo’s dance with the limp Juliet in the tomb.
My favourite musical movement was the “Dance of the Knights,” during the Capulet Ball. The tuba heavy music, low and ominous, played up the theme of this very masculine, very overbearing environment. A heavily structured, pounding piece of music, like a Viking rowing drum, for a rigidly patriarchal event.
My favourite pas was the last farewell in Juliet’s bedroom before Romeo leaves for Mantua. Juliet’s desperate pleas for Romeo to stay, her denial that it is morning and that Romeo must be banished or killed is heartbreakingly beautiful.
There were dozens of other moments that I could praise, everything from the market scenes full of squabbling servants, to the small ensemble dances of courtiers or Juliet’s friends, to the three harlots in the streets. But I would begin to repeat myself unbearably if I tried to keep an account of everything that I loved.
The thing that I keeps me coming back to Shakespeare is that I find something new in a play every time that I revisit it. Seeing Romeo and Juliet told through ballet gave me that same experience of finding a new hidden gem in a familiar story.