Review: Royal Swedish Ballet - Mats Ek's Juliet & Romeo - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 24 - 27 September 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 25 September 2014

Royal Swedish Ballet Mats Ek's 'Juliet & Romeo' Photo: Gert Weigelt

Performance reviewed: 24 September

If we could bend our imagination into believing that Shakespeare had written Romeo & Juliet in the enigma code then it might appear that Mats Ek has found the cipher to enable that encrypted version to be unravelled through dance. His vision of the world’s most famous romantic tragedy, as performed by the Royal Swedish Ballet, is seen through an extraordinarily distorted lens.

All the facets of the narrative structure are broadly where they should be. But while the intention of some scenes is obvious (Juliet’s introduction to Paris, for example), others need the smoke and mirrors to be removed (and incidentally, there is plenty of real smoke floating about the stage). The pace of the narrative moves very slowly – and sometimes disjointedly – across a long first act although the second act (aggregating what we would normally associate as Acts 2 and 3) appears to be on x8 fast forward swiftly moving to x32 in a rapid finale!

There is much to admire in the ingenuity of Ek’s recent (2013) interpretation, not least in the intriguing imagery that makes this a compelling – if not also, often infuriating – spectacle. The face of a much-loved and familiar friend has been cosmetically altered (note that I do not say enhanced) beyond all recognition. Uppermost in the change is the fact that the iconic Prokofiev score is replaced by Ek’s selection of popular extracts from Tchaikovsky’s music, adapted and arranged by Anders Högstedt. I venture that it could only be possible for Tchaikovsky – even in the musical equivalent of a patchwork quilt – to satisfactorily substitute for Prokofiev on his home turf.

The most consistently absorbing elements of this production came in the visual appeal of the modern set and costume designs (by Magdalena Åberg) and the rich variety of light and shadow created by the lighting designs of Linus Fellbom. Rolling “stainless steel” panels, appearing like off- cuts from a climbing wall, served multifarious purposes, creating rooms inside the Capulet household and the structure for the outside balcony in that most iconic scene. The largely modern dress is unfussy and inoffensive, fixing aspects of character in a garment – such as Benvolio’s puffer-jacket and Mercutio’s leather trousers – but the quirky headwear for the Capulet clan was unfortunately reminiscent of the oversized, small-brimmed hats worn by Ken Dodd’s Diddymen, bringing back purposefully long-forgotten memories of childhood trips to the seafront theatres of Blackpool for me, which I’m prepared to wager was never an influence in the costume designer’s intentions!

Ek’s choreography reveals much humour and he is especially expert at moulding choreographic devices to implement characterisation but the corollary to this achievement is a movement palette that often appears as a blunt instrument monotonously capturing the beat. This is at its worst in a long sequence where a dancer repeatedly kicks his legs backwards in exact time to the music, unfortunately rather like a dog covering its scent!

Perhaps in keeping with the reversal of the regular title, there was an uneven match between the star-cross’d teenage lovers with the passion of Mariko Kida’s Juliet consistently more charismatic than Anthony Lomuljo’s rather anonymous performance as Romeo: it was only in the final scene that Lomuljo – ironically, given that his character was about to die – came alive, resonating with the expected emotional strength. The balcony, bedroom and crypt duets were the highlights in Ek’s choreography and he certainly achieved clear blue water from other versions of these pas de deux.

Ana Laguna – now in her 41st year as a dancer – stole every scene in her aggrandised role as the Nurse; and another long-serving member of Royal Swedish Ballet, Jan-Erik Wikström (who enjoyed a three-year sabbatical as Daria Klimentová’s partner at English National Ballet in the early noughties) delivered an impactful cameo as The Prince. Lord and Lady Capulet (known here simply as Father and Mother) were effectively portrayed by Arsen Mehrabyan and Marie Lindqvist. I confess that I had trouble distinguishing between the characters of Mercutio (Jérôme Marchand) and Tybalt (Dawid Kupinski) in the early market place scene, which was not helpful! Oscar Salomonsson played a foppish and mop-haired Paris rather as if he were an especially awful reject from an ancient episode of Pop Idol.

While the overall effect in the flow of Ek’s vision remains consistently captivating, some affectations dampen the enjoyment: most annoying was the serial over-use of Segways as a means of transport for the “Capulet guards”; closely followed by Juliet’s horizontal, clearly mechanically-enabled, descent from the balcony (but why?); and perhaps worst of all, the wholly unnecessary device of Tybalt urinating over the corpse of Mercutio. The inherent dichotomy in approaching Ek’s vision for his Juliet & Romeo is that the simple visual clarity of the look contrasts with an often obscure understanding of the narrative, albeit that this is frequently punctuated with crystal-clear scenes that are almost traditional in their shape.

Despite these reservations, the opportunity to see the Royal Swedish Ballet – extremely rare visitors to this island – in this UK premiere of an important new work by one of the world’s leading choreographers was very welcome and Ek’s take on Juliet and Romeo is refreshingly different, even if it needs a code book to break it down. That the company is here is thanks to the Sadler’s Wells’ Northern Light season of dance from the Nordic countries that continues through October and November.

Continues until Saturday 27 September

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 and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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