Review: Mariinsky Ballet - Romeo and Juliet - Royal Opera House

Performance: 28 - 31 July 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 30 July 2014

Mariinsky Ballet 'Romeo and Juliet'  - Viktoria Tereshkina and VladimirShklyarov. Photo Valentin Baranovsky

Performance reviewed: 29 July

A sense of history was all around the Royal Opera House, both old and newly-minted on the second evening of the Mariinsky Ballet’s three-week London season, presented by Victor Hochhauser. This choreographic interpretation of Prokofiev’s score was created by Leonid Lavrovsky in 1940. It wasn’t the first, since that honour goes to the otherwise little-known dancer, Ivo Psota in a production that premiered in the Czechoslovakian city of Brno on the eve of New Year’s Eve in 1938. But Prokofiev’s score had always been intended for the Kirov (the Soviet name for the Mariinsky Ballet) and it was Lavrovsky’s choreography that premiered in Leningrad, just over a year later. Then it was the great dancers Konstantin Sergeyev and Galina Ulanova who took the title roles and the fresh historical reference being established on 29 July 2014 was the return to the Covent Garden stage of the English dancer Xander Parish, a young man who left the Royal Ballet to further his career in St Petersburg in 2010.

Now approaching its 75th birthday, it’s not surprising that the Mariinsky production appears dated, both in design and exaggerated aspects of dramatized performance. Notwithstanding this museum feel, it is still an interesting and remarkably fresh interpretation. No matter how many times I have seen the Lavrovsky Romeo and Juliet it still has the capacity for surprise. It is longer, since parts that other choreographers have excised remain central to this version, such as the soliloquy for Romeo when his journey to Mantua is interrupted by a messenger with the news of Juliet’s “death”. In general and especially for the sake of this particular performance, I welcome the inclusion both for the sake of narrative clarity and because it showed to the finest advantage the long-limbed, poetic and yearning elegance of Parish’s sublime dancing.

The original set and costume designs of Pyotr Williams have a fascinating uniqueness, which provides the boiling water that brings Lavrovsky’s tea to life. The multi-coloured leggings of the people of Padua and outrageously vibrant designs that identify the exaggerated personality of the flame-haired Tybalt, for example, are fundamental to this production and denote Williams as part of a great line of Russian theatre designers. The son of an American scientist who became a naturalised Russian, Williams was head artist at the Mariinsky Theatre for six years but he died, aged only 45, in 1947. The special atmosphere created by his designs for this Romeo and Juliet is a unique legacy that explains how much unexplored art died with him.

There is a wonderful tradition of exaggerated characterisations that go with this production, which came out of a policy shift in the Soviet Union towards dramatised ballet from the mid-1930s onwards. This can be seen to the most outrageous effect in Alexei Yermolayev’s manic portrayal of Tybalt in the 1954 film of Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet by the Bolshoi Ballet (with Ulanova as Juliet). In this Mariinsky performance, it was Vladimir Ponamarev’s uproarious portrayal of Lord Capulet that kept upstaging all else. If his powder-grey wig and dandyish costumes were not enough, Ponamarev’s elaborate gestures and extravagant facial antics came straight out of the era of silent film: put a dark coat on him in the third act scene when Capulet is wrestling with Juliet to make her bow to his wishes over Paris and he could easily be tying the maiden to the railway track! Just before the discovery of Juliet’s comatose body, Lord Capulet enters her bedchamber and leans nonchalantly against the door frame, extending one arm lazily up towards the architrave: subliminally, I could visualise Gloria Swanson declaring that it is time for her close-up!

As Tybalt, Kamil Yangurazov did his best to do justice to the vivid hair and colourful costumes but his personality appeared rather too anonymous to have the desired effect. The same is true of Kimin Kim who needs to develop more personality for character-based roles but how he can dance! I never got much flavour of Mercutio from his performance but his dance technique is supremely athletic and crystal-clear.

If I can be excused reference to a pet hate, I must say that the sword-fighting was dire. Quite possibly, the worst I have ever seen. The only person to make a duel look like a fight was Parish in the angry, opening sequence of his revenge bout with Tybalt: and – whether on purpose or accidentally – there was no pathetic sword lamely going between arm and body to signify the death thrust with these two; the steel blade of Parish’s épée literally bent double on it’s impact with Yangurazov’s torso! But, why is Tybalt using an old-fashioned training foil (with a very narrow guard) while Mercutio (and Romeo, for he takes Mercutio’s sword) uses a modern competition-standard épée (with a very wide bowl-shaped guard) and – more to the point – why do all the protagonists use these thrusting weapon (which have a point and no sharp edge) as if they are sabres (ie cutting weapons with a sharp edge). It starts off by being nonsense and frankly they might as well be fighting with sticks for all the legitimacy these weapons bring. But even that might be excusable if the performance was vaguely OK: in the act one mass fight between Montagues and Capulets, it looked as if the men were playing some silly game of “tick-tack” in the air, which is bad enough but even when presenting the blades to each other they more-often-than-not missed them! Note to directors: if sword fighting is a major part of the plot, use the right kit and arrange it as if it matters. Rant over!

Viktoria Tereshkina’s usual Romeo is Vladimir Shklyarov but he was called upon for the previous evening to open the season in this role dancing alongside Diana Vishneva. I didn’t think Tereshkina worked as the Juliet for Parish’s Romeo (indeed I don’t that Tereshkina is a natural Juliet). She is an extraordinary dancer with the ability to create beautiful shapes, arcs and lines with her long and flexible body: in fact, she is the ideal aesthetic for a Russian ballerina. But, I feel that her extraordinary gifts come to the fore as Nikiya (La Bayadère) and Odette (Swan Lake) rather than as Juliet. Parish – on the other hand – is a natural Romeo with all the dashing, boyish, lyrical eloquence that the role demands. Lavrovsky’s choreography also necessitates some fearsome lifts and Parish has developed into a strong partner to whom these requirements are now made to seem effortless. I count myself very fortunate to have seen this British debut of one of the finest British dancers of his generation. It is just a shame that the young man has had to go to Russia to prove it!

We have grown accustomed to these regular tours to provide a long summer season at the Royal Opera House with Victor Hochhauser presenting – usually in alternate years – the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky. When one considers the relative scale of the great ballet companies it is worth noting that when the Royal Ballet goes on such a tour there is very little left behind. The Mariinsky, on the other hand, have 250 people here in London but are still performing large-scale ballets back in their own theatres in St Petersburg! These tours are huge and costly enterprises and we should not take this annual opportunity to assess the eloquence and splendour of great Russian ballet for granted.

The Mariinsky Ballet season at the Royal Opera House continues until 16 August

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards.

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