Classical ballet is strange and unknown territory to me, yet somehow I got myself to a matinee of Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 Romeo and Juliet – one of the most traditional ballets I could lay my finger on. Braced for baptism of fire, I made it out with no harm done besides a little cathartic soul-stirring.
I hoped that knowing Romeo and Juliet well enough as a play would bring my brow up to scratch where I wouldn’t recognise mime gestures or other subtleties in the ballet language. Plus, it was on at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham where the listings include a Michael Bolton concert that I was only too happy to accept as a cultural benchmark.
We had a closeup view of the hand painted stage backdrop from the stalls and it gave an air of traditional charm rather than pomp. Though as the lights dimmed, there was an awkwardly long musical intro which made me cling to the safety net of my vodka and tonic and fruit pastilles.
We moved through the very first scenes so quickly that the introduction of each new character or place came across oddly broken up, like short unconnected episodes. Changing so abruptly, the accompanying music sounded a bit clunky and with a huge cast of dancers on the stage at any one time, some sequences came across as chaotic and ungainly. This was most obvious during the early Capulet-Montague sword fight, where the movements were clearly meant to synchronised and in time with the music, but looked like a game of bulldog from the stalls. That said, amongst the busy drama and mediaeval sets, there was a hot-blooded energy and you really felt Tybalt’s brooding presence.
Yoaqian Shang’s first steps on stage brought silence and everything magnetised towards her. She was so convincing and charismatic as Juliet in the her grace, sweetness and youthfulness. Small, girlish moments written into the choreography – her eyes lingering as Paris touches her back or creeping backwards en pointe in shy playfulness – captured her fellow characters and the audience in turn.
César Morales made a quiet Romeo, his inherent sweetness set him apart from his cockier companions as much as his moony behaviour did. His capacity for sensitiveness made him as pure a character a Juliet and you were able to see them as equals.
The balcony scene was movingly beautiful in its the way it transformed Juliet from a young girl to a young woman in love. Despite the heart-attack-style athleticism the choreography demanded, the dancers seemed to move slowly, gently; their costumes were illuminated in cold blue light, reflecting the stone castle backdrop. Their scenes together were so convincing that they could have been entirely separate to the rest of the production, which only reinforced the narrative and actually tied the whole thing together.
I thought their most romantic duet was the final scene, where Romeo tries to resurrect the lifeless body of Juliet with some of the most dramatic moves – their control was almost painfully good to watch.
The sideline characters and the details of the production were affecting and entertaining – there was even a touch of Baz Luhrmann glitz in the design of the church and crypt sets- but their paleness in comparison to Romeo and Juliet was testament to how powerfully the story was told.