As part of its Northern Lights season celebrating Nordic dance, Sadler’s Wells has secured the Royal Swedish Ballet after an absence in London of almost ten years. For its return, the company brings its reworking ofRomeo & Juliet, created in 2013 for its 240th anniversary.
For this piece, called Juliet & Romeo instead, Mats Ek shuns the Prokofiev score for a selection of Tchaikovsky music. This is a R & J stripped of its Veronese setting and its era. Instead of the traditions and history of the city and its occupants, the lovers are trapped physically by a series of black walls that glide across the stage to create a claustrophobic setting.
The backdrop never seems to stop moving in Act One, the space they create allowing different sequences to emerge, giving a manic feeling. These early group pieces are a joy: fast-paced and full of jumps and kicks, they resemble the pizzazz of West Side Story.
Another strong set piece comes in the ball. The lack of Prokofiev’s famous melody is no concern, with the usual posing replaced with women in capes and men in Pharrell-esque hats. The tall female dancers – which remains a rare sight in ballet – stand out, though let down by them inexplicably lifting their skirts to bare their legs.
This is very much a juvenile Romeo & Juliet. It works particularly well in the balcony pas de deux, this Juliet (Mariko Kida) and Romeo (Anthony Lomuljo) showing their youth more so than any other interpretations I have seen. The immaturity in Kida and Lomuljo’s gestures – the dragging lift, the handclaps – makes it all the more heartbreaking.
In the Nurse (played with a muted elegance by Ana Laguna) scene, we see not a passive Juliet but a determined young lady, hiding under the skirt of her confidante when her parents arrive with Paris. As she is lifted, she is doll-like in her stiffness, confused by this seriousness that is expected of her.
But all the laughs can work against it at times. A crucial scene with Tybalt (Dawid Kupinski in a surprisingly small role) becomes a playground taunt by Mercutio (danced supremely confidently by Jérôme Marchand), who prances mockingly around the stage in a tutu. It’s hard to believe the feelings portrayed are enough to kill. Once that’s unbelievable, you lose the domino that sets the rest of the story into motion.
Ek is gifted in the little details, such as the heel clicks and the trembling of the feet. And Mercutio and Benvolio’s rapport, comprising classical tours en l’air and pirouettes mixed with hip hop freezes and headstands, is delightful.
That said, the choreography’s limitations are apparent when it has to tell an overarching story. The family feud is not established clearly, and so the politics of who is on whose side is absent and the forbidden love becomes less dangerous. Indeed, there is no intermediary in the form of the Friar, but bizarrely the relatively minor Rosaline and Peter are kept intact. Even the Prince seems irrelevant.
The climax is equally muddled. There is no mistaken death here – Juliet simply dies by her father’s hand, and Romeo just… dies. Somehow. And without a strong sense of this “ancient grudge”, this feels an unsatisfying ending.
And this applies to the entire piece. The back-to-basics idea of telling the story without period and location, as a universal tale, is a great one. But it is complicated by bit-part characters and plot changes, not to mention the Segways. It ultimately feels like the lovers themselves: lost potential.