Review: Royal Ballet - Romeo & Juliet at the Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 3 April 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 15 March 2012

Royal Ballet 'Johan Kobborg & Alina Cojocaru in 'Romeo & Juliet'. Photo: Dee Conway

Reviewed: 7 March

The end of an era. My era, really! Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg danced together for the very first time at a matinee performance of Romeo & Juliet on 17 February 2001. It was not a planned partnership but like so many great things one that came together initially by accident. In this case, the indisposition of Kobborg’s intended partner, Leanne Benjamin. They had just a few days to prepare but the result was ballet alchemy. By that time, I had already been intoxicated by their performances individually but together here was the powerful elixir of all emotion channelled through their mutuality of spirit.

Although this performance (7 March 2012) was not their swansong in the roles with which they began, since they are both due to dance Romeo & Juliet for American Ballet Theatre in New York this June, it was certainly their final curtain call together in this ballet on The Royal Opera House stage. Now in his 40th year (although looking good for 30 in anyone’s eyes), Kobborg will surely have moved on to pastures new by the time this ballet returns to Covent Garden (probably now not until 2014). It proved to be one of those nights out of which ballet folklore is made. Later in the evening, a friend tweeted that she wished a DVD had been made. On the contrary, I’m so glad it wasn’t because this was a performance that should have lived only in the moment. Any facsimile of it would dilute the emotion and passion that could only have been truly experienced in the flesh.

A few days earlier when I reviewed the English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer award, the former Royal Ballet Principal, David Wall said that dancers should always portray the soul in their movement. Wall could have had no better example of his meaning than these two wonderful dancers investing such purpose and drama into their performances. The iterative experience of the years in which they have been Romeo and Juliet has enriched their interpretations in so many ways. Little human touches, like the frisson of a gentle kiss on the shoulder, cast their own unique interpretations on these familiar characters; and their clever, unique positioning in the bedroom, crypt and at the beginning of the balcony scene opens up the stage space to provide new perspectives on familiar encounters. By making the imagery more powerful they enrich and enhance the joy and wonder of discovering love, a stark counterpoint to the wretched turbulence of hatred and murder between their clans. Theirs is a desire that builds into a crescendo of passion in that final act, which has never been more heart-wrenching or spell-binding.

The emotion carried over into the curtain calls where Kobborg just about held it together. In fact it spilled on into the night for me, since I couldn’t speak for a good hour after the performance had ended. Eschewing conversation, I preferred a solitary walk just to postpone the eventuality of re-entering the ordinariness of life.

The retinue of the Royal Ballet, from actors to soloists, played their part to the full in making this a very special evening but particular praise should go to Alexander Campbell who substituted for Ricardo Cervera as Mercutio and performed with verve and panache.

There are many superb dancers and other wonderful interpreters of these doomed, teenaged lovers; and there will be great, even greater, dancers to come. But we will never see a partnership as mutually attuned to their art and to each other as Cojocaru and Kobborg. Two dancers who take nothing as read, looking always beyond the face value, challenging assumptions and rote without undermining traditional values, and opening up new ways of looking at familiar ballets. It has been a privilege to spend these years mesmerised by their poetry in movement. No dancers have made me think about ballet in the way that they do. Johan Kobborg may be coming to the end of his performing days, at least as a Principal dancer (I can see him performing a wicked Madge in La Sylphide in another 40 years!) but I’m certain that he is going to carry on making me think about ballet, laugh about ballet, care about ballet in whatever roles he has to come.

Follow Graham Watts on @gwdancewriter

Further performances of Romeo and Juliet by the Royal Ballet this season on 22, 27 March & 3 April.
The performance on 22 March, starring Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli wil be streamed live to UK cinemas. More details

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