Something that always puzzles me is why ballet companies feel the need to attract new audience doing something that is not ballet. It would be interesting to know how many people attracted by that "Boy George thing" (undeniably an entertaining evening, with also come dancing here and there) came back to the ROH to watch Swan Lake or Giselle.
New approaches to the classics can lead to "fusion" masterpieces as Akram Khan Giselle, but more often are just failed attempts.
So to hear "we want to renew ballet" can be blood freezing.
I have good news for those who, like me, love ballet: Johan Kobborg’s idea of ballet renewal and revolution is not to forget about ballet, but change the story telling. Kobborg got superpowers and had in his hands that magical device I'd love have in mine a little bit too often, when sitting in theatre: a remote with a fast forward button.
And, to my taste, he used it brilliantly most of the time. So, if you have the opportunity, go to see this Kobborg’s Romeo and Juliet.
Oddly, for a show aimed to reduce its usual length of roughly an hour (from 2h15 min to more or less 1h 20min), the opening scene is an addition: The Prologue. As in the play, there is no space for hope and illusions: the first thing the audience sees is Juliet sharing "with Romeo one heavy funeral bed". Two self introducing solos follow: an energetic one for Romeo, and a childish playful one for the young Juliet. The “prologue” and the solos focus immediately the attention on the two main characters: the tragedy is their story, the rest, with very few exceptions, is effectively dried up to the bare essence needed to have the story flow.
It runs so fast and it’s so different that after a week my memory fails to remember the complete sequence of events: I’d have loved a second view, because the first one leaves just the strongest impressions, what one liked the most and the opposite.
I didn’t particularly like the three friends dancing, in many moments lacking ensemble, and Mercutio part resulted pretty much overacted as a “Russian Swan Lake Jester thing” with a quite messed up solo (I am afraid it was more due to the performance than the actual choreography). The great thing about Mercutio, in this versio, is that he has a sudden death: whoever is dancing it, I always have the instinct to finish his never ending agony throwing something heavy to his head, so I will be forever grateful to Johan to have cut it entirely, something I didn’t even dare to hope for! As shown in the first scene the story is about Juliet and Romeo and Mercutio’s death is just a tragedy trigger kept to his essence: great cut, to my taste.
The one who stole the show on the male side was Tybalt: the young Nikolas Gaifullin fulfilled all my high expectations from a technical point of view and surpassed the artistic ones, with an imperative and assured stage presence, despite the young age (23). His huge jumps in full body and landing control and in extreme easiness were a highlight of the evening.
Another surprisingly (at least for me) impressive artist was Ross Freddie Ray: authoritative and domineering without effort, following Kobborg’s mot that “less is more”. A high stature is not enough to credibly tower over Cojocaru, as tiny as she is: he demonstrated the qualities to face this venture successfully.
Paris here is a mere puppet in the hands of Lord Capulet and also Lady Capulet has less space than in other productions (the only very relevant thing she does is to turn his back to the husband at the funeral: she learnt a lesson from her daughter).
This part of the ballet has many cuts but quite follows the tradition: Romeo and friends go to the ball, he meets Juliet, they flirt in the hidden corners of Capulet palace (their pdd seems shorter than usual) and they are separated. Then the beautiful balcony pdd: there is a youtube video of great quality (including also the father trying to call Juliet back inside: interesting point…he clearly understands it’s better to have her married as soon as possible), so there is no need to describe it in detail, I’ll just add that it was deservedly received enthusiastically by the audience (they couldn’t even wait for it to end to clap!).
It’s from this point that Kobborg makes the most interesting adaptations.
In a work without Escalus and Lord Montague, Lord Capulet, to affirm his prominent position and his power and what they imply, makes her daughter engagement a public affair. He, Paris and Juliet climb the stair to announce the “contract” to the citizens. The girl seems to go up to the gallows and Romeo is watching among the small crowd (and this works in great favor of shortness, simplifying the process to “let him know”).
When I first saw the beautiful set, it was placed to form a series of full arches with a big stair on the side. The full arches, Roman or more recent, are very common in Verona architecture and are a recurrent element in the palaces that define the beautiful piazza dei Signori; one of those palaces, Palazzo della Ragione, has a big stair in the court: there, for me, the engagement was announced. So, maybe for just for a personal fantasy, this public engagement was very intriguing for me.
Probably the most interesting change on the ballet flow and on the narration perspective is after the (merciful) death of Mercutio and Tybalt: Juliet is watching the events and it’s the girl that run down to the drama, not Lady Capulet. She wears a blood red dress, to an enhanced effect.
It has been said many times that this production was conceived just in February and then the works started, from nothing. At the same time is well known that Kobborg has already worked on at least two Romeo and Juliet projects (one for a Russian company, one for Bucharest Opera) that were never realized. Sure many ideas were poured into this new one, because great achievements need not only talent, but also time and hard work. So, when I saw that clip of Romeo and Juliet having a pdd on “Lady Capulet music”, my mind sprung back, somehow remembering a chat of 5 years ago: I scrolled back Messenger to the 13th of June 2014, to find something that probably has worked in the background of my head since then: “I don’t even have her on stage, I think there are more important issues to deal with at the end of act 2, than those of Lady Capulet”.
Now I know which those issues are, and this is for me one of the best moments of the show, if not the real best. Juliet runs down and she is not anymore the playful girl, but a young woman full of love, despair, rage, that sees her life, her future, her hopes destroyed by that moron that Romeo is. Kobborg is lucky to have Alina Cojocaru to dance it and to have had her working on it (a long-lasting luck, since that day at the beginning of February 2001, when they were told they were going to dance together, for the first time, as Romeo and Juliet on the 17th of the same month). When it comes to deliver genuinely and from inside, not with odd faces but with the whole body, strong and complex emotions, very few can hope to come close to Cojocaru. Alina is an artist that is not seeking for beauty at all costs but for truth, she has not fear to not “look good” when it is necessary to convey an emotion. She and Kobborg added to her dancing on Lady Capulet music also some sprained movements probably coming from her experience with Neumeier; I suspect Johan didn’t gave Alina carte blanche but allowed and guided her to express herself freely, bringing in all the experiences she collected all over the world in many years of dancing. Due to this change of view, already chosen by Kobborg years ago, the focus is on the young couple facing the disaster impending on their life: they dance on a very dramatic music, they run to the wall that seems to block their future, and Juliet in some moments even seems to tell off Romeo for what he did to their hopes. Yes, there are more relevant issues than Lady Capulet despair and what a change from the usual “please don’t go please don’t go” bedroom pdd with a still childish Juliet (as wonderful as it can be: I usually love it! This is a not a hoped but for sure a successful cut). Here is the modernity of the reading, IMO, and here is the real maturation of Juliet, always the most interesting character, because, for once, for a ballet female character, she is the strong one, the one that risks more, that changes more and the one that (as Alina taught me with a performance of hers a few years ago) ultimately wins, no matter what Shakespeare thinks.
For those who remember Cojocaru’s gut-wrenching silent scream in MacMillan’s version, please note that it was moved here, slightly different and expressing more complex feelings, and it is even repeated, on her balcony, when she must face the plan to try to escape from her approaching prison for the life.
She will not repeat it in the tomb. There, the whole scene is moving, desperate and sweet and can be for sure better. I’d love to see it again without the bed disfunction that probably put the lovers’ hearts in their throats: when Romeo placed back Juliet’s body on the bed, that resulted to be not perfectly blocked and moved to a certain extent, so they probably moved around and on it in fear to make a disaster falling down. So Juliet very last moments with Romeo’s body were not as fluent as they probably are supposed to be, even if Alina managed it quite well; a real pity, because the whole thing can be wonderful, with Juliet raising her hand to the sky and smiling, exactly as Alina did for the first time some years ago, because in the tragedy she is the winner: she escaped from a prison for the life to an eternal freedom with her Romeo. A Cojocaru trademark that I was happy to see in this Juliet that she created with her real life Romeo.
The moving bed was not the only technical problem of the performance: the Arena calendar is full and an opera was on the night before, so they had only a day (I mean a daylight day, not 24 hours) to mount the floor, the scenery and the lighting. They had a short stage call in the late afternoon (a very sunny and humid day: a joy for a dancer…) probably just to gain confidence with the wide empty prairie that Arena stage is, but of course they couldn’t check the lighting in the sun. The lighting was bad, still not too much disturbing for the audience, I hope it was the same for the dancers: it’s not nice to be blinded on stage by an unexpected misplaced light (I was having a blue light pointed to my eyes during the balcony pdd and needed to move the head to watch Juliet when she was upstairs).
The sound was quite awful, much worse at my place than in the pdd video: probably a complete sound check couldn’t be done. The volume was too high and the sound distorted, it was even difficult to recognize the effects (I strongly suspect that the “thunderstorm” were just the burning torches, but who knows: I’ll find it out at the next view). Disturbing but predictable: the Arena is an amphitheater, after all, a stadium, not built for artistic performances; the actual Roman theatre (still in full use but much much smaller) is on the other side of the river Adige.
These remarks just to underline what a crazy adventure this show was and how many efforts were made by everybody to make it such a successful one despite the difficulties. All these technical issues can be easily resolved having more time and using a theatre: the imponent and absolutely magnificent scenery was a little lost at the center of the wide stage, that was looking more empty when the full cast was on stage (to have just one or two dancers helps to focus the attention to smaller space). The Arena was a fantastic opportunity that needed to be grabbed, but I think that this production belongs to a traditional theatre.
Alina Cojocaru was fully up to my expectations, very high when it comes to her performances. I had some enthusiastic feedbacks from my office in the following days: many colleagues went to see the show and it seems that the buzz and discussions in Verona didn’t end when the (non existing) curtains went down. I am really grateful to Polunin to have brought Alina to my company head quarter: she gave such a wonderful performance that the next time I will be asked to do something when I want a day off for ballet, I’ll just raise a hand “sorry, Alina is dancing: ubi major..."
And really this show is a Polunin miracle: to be offered the Arena, di Verona, to be willing to take a risk not bringing a stale gala of pdds, to aim to be new, to offer something different and big and ambitious are great values. This project looks extremely expensive and even a full Arena di Verona probably didn’t guarantee the return of the investment, so this is a project born to have a (fortunately deserved) future. It was a great effort of many people, Kobborg first of all of course, and the whole cast, especially the sumptuous Cojocaru, for her dedication to the project and for the way she lighted up the huge stage of the Arena much more than the stage lighting actually did, but also the organizer, for the massive advertising, the continuous presence everywhere to let people know and then remind them of this event. It doesn’t matter several tickets were sold half priced: to have a sold out Arena is not easy even if given for free.
So Polunin deserves a great respect. The sad side is that he is at the moment much more relevant, interesting and successful as a promoter and a fund-riser than as a dancer. Watched live he looked unfinished, as blurred, his dancing missing the clarity, purity and fully controlled explosivity that made him such an exciting and outstanding dancer. The videos unfortunately confirm the impression and his technique looks partially faded away. It’s easy to trust @Angela when she says that he was outdanced by Gouneo, I suspect that many in Munich and elsewhere can out dance him (he was probably lucky to be fired by Paris…one can even suspect that maybe his posts were not the real reason). But one other thing has to be said: Gouneo is an out standing virtuoso, but has always given me the impression of such a total and absolute vacuity, that could have made him the joy of Robert Boyle. Polunin is much more: he is an artist, maybe not the best actor, but definitely a good one, and with a natural charismatic stage presence. He didn’t give a “bad” performance, it was a decent and full of dignity one and he was a sympathetic partner for his Juliet (and to tell the complete truth I’d still sign to have him partnering Cojocaru every night, compared to some dancer she shares the stage with at ENB and in Hamburg) , but he is no more up there in the stars and there was nothing inhis perforance that could justify nowadays all the hypes about him as a dancer. He is still relatively young, so probably if he really wants and works hard and hard he can be again an outstanding dancer. I hope that when his Romeo run to Mantua, he heard the dear old Virgil crying ”Hei mihi, qualis erat, quantum mutatus ab illo Sergie”. He has now an enormous popularity, but how long can it last if not substantial? He can renew it with a new tattoo or working harder: I desperately hope for the second option.
I any case, this is a Polunin production, but you don’t have to watch it because of him: you have to run to see it because it’s a good Kobborg’s idea become real, because the set is a minimalist suggestive wonder and most of the costumes (notably Juliet's ones) are beautiful too and because Alina Cojocaru is magnificent in a role created on her and by herself. And if you go and find out that Polunin has decided to be again the golden boy he was, well…what an extraordinary additional bonus that could be!