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Flash Review 2, 6-16: A Blessing on Both Your Casts
Neumeier's "Romeo and Juliet" Still Young After 30+ Years

By Stephan Laurent
Copyright 2004 Stephan Laurent

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(To celebrate the 30th anniversary of John Neumeier's tenure as director, Hamburg Ballet is presenting 16 Neumeier creations for this year's Hamburg Ballet Days. Third review.)

HAMBURG -- Some stories are so gripping that they have inspired innumerable choreographers throughout history. Such is the case with one of Shakespeare's most beloved works, the immortal tragedy of "Romeo and Juliet." Lavrovsky's initial treatment for the Kirov Ballet (1940) was succeeded by a series of highly successful evening-length ballets to the well-known score by Sergei Prokofiev -- most notably Frederick Ashton's for the Royal Danish Ballet (1955), John Cranko's for La Scala (1958), and Kenneth MacMillan's for the Royal Ballet (1965). Other choreographers chose different musical scores; for instance, Antony Tudor utilized for American Ballet Theatre a score by Frederick Delius (1943) and Maurice Bejart used Hector Berlioz's cantata for his Ballet of the Twentieth Century (1966).

"Romeo and Juliet" was the first large-scale ballet choreographed by John Neumeier when he was still director of the Frankfurt Ballet, in 1971.This was also the first major work Neumeier produced when he came to Hamburg in 1973, and its resounding success was one of the contributing factors to solidly placing him at the helm of this eloquent company for the following three decades. It was thus only fitting that the 30th Hamburg Ballet Days would open with a "Neuinstudierung" (revised version/new cast) of his 30+ year-old masterpiece.

While decidedly much more classical in its use of ballet vocabulary than his later works, Neumeier's "Romeo and Juliet" has aged well and is just as fresh to the eye as it was three decades ago. This is due not only to the exquisitely fine dancing of the principals, soloists and ensemble of this very strong company, but also to Neumeier's instinctive sense of theatricality and to his unerring musicality.

Most balletic versions of Juliet introduce her as a young and naive personality, but Neumeier goes one step further in this direction when we first encounter her -- she appears to us dripping wet from bathing with her cousins, the four of them clad only in large bath towels. When her mother, the imposing Countess Capulet, surprises her in this quasi-naked attire (Juliet's towel is not even fastened, so that during the whole scene she has to clutch it to herself with one hand), she tries to show her the family's ritual dancing step, an arrogant walk with high chest placement followed by a pique arabesque with a sweeping arc of the arm terminating right under the breastbone, palm flexed. After several valiant but klutzy attempts, Juliet is unable to reproduce the sequence properly. This tells us much about this mother-daughter relationship, as well as about Juliet's inexperience. In contrast, Romeo is presented as a lad possessing already more maturity, as evidenced by several bravura solos right as the curtain opens. This is underscored in a program note by Neumeier: "From the start, what was important to me was the opposition of active and passive -- innocence and experience. At the beginning, Juliet is naive and innocent, while Romeo is experienced. As lovers, an exchange takes place as each one becomes like the other: Romeo is 'disarmed' through love, and Juliet is pushed to become active." This theatrical and psychological approach to character development is highly successful and draws the audience emotionally into the work.

One of the very moving choreographic motifs utilized for the two lovers involves the use of a simple circular port de bras with both flexed palms ending up tightly pressed one against the other, each protagonist looking at that delicate contact with wonderment. This theme was used repeatedly not only in duets, but also in each of the lover's solos when they find comfort in that tactile memory to further pursue their course towards eventual doom.

Other dramatic innovations brought by Neumeier to this great classic include the use of a travelling troupe of performers who keep re-appearing throughout the ballet. They are utilized, for instance, to illustrate the meaning of the secret potion Friar Lawrence gives to Juliet to escape the arranged marriage with Count Paris. While Juliet and the Friar freeze downstage right, the troupe's wagon (which has previously secretly carried Romeo into exile) rolls in from upstage left and the troupe improvises a 'play' explaining the potion's effects and how the hero will re-awaken the seemingly dead heroine after she has been put to rest by her grieving parents.

Many characters are given far more dancing opportunities in Neumeier's version than is the case in others. Count and Countess Montague play a very central role in the story. The scene in which Juliet is made to give her consent to marrying Paris unfurls in a sinister but beautifully fluid pas de quatre between the Capulets, Juliet, and Paris, with the bride-to-be exchanging hands in aerial lifts like so much meat brought to market. Juliet's three cousins, including Rosalind, with whom Romeo was originally infatuated before his fatal encounter at the ball, have numerous delicately crafted trios. The ball scene has all ensemble women performing technically demanding pointe work, contrary to the tradition of displaying, to Prokofiev's haughty pavane, simplistic court dance steps in character shoes. The market scenes display many short variations by occasional demi-soloists emerging from the energetic dancing ensemble.

The massive but gorgeous set by Juergen Rose (who also designed the revised 1962 version of Cranko's "Romeo and Juliet" for Stuttgart Ballet) consists of softly arched colonnades in ochre colors mounted on wagons which move throughout the ballet, permitting remarkably fluid scenery changes, almost like dissolves in a movie. A similar ochre coloration permeates the portals and backdrops. Rose designed the historically accurate costumes too, and most of the ballet's characters are dressed in similar drab hues, making them blend into the set and with each other. In contrast, the principals' garments display bolder colors -- reds for Juliet, blues for Romeo, and black for the rest of the Capulet clan, making them stand out vividly every time.

This production was one of the very few presented on the festival more than once and with different casts. On opening night, June 8, Neumeier gave the nod to two fresh faces in his company. As Romeo, Thiego Bordin, so far a corps dancer, displayed brilliant technique while interpreting the role with a youthful glee that made his character very believable. Helene Bouchet (who reminds me of ABT's Leslie Brown, star of "The Turning Point"), only recently promoted to soloist, danced a technically strong Juliet that evolved from innocence to maturity with great conviction. That night, Countess Capulet was interpreted with icy determination and exquisite technical perfection by Anna Polikarpova, partnered by the always-solid Lloyd Riggins. Arsen Megrabian's Benvolio displayed good control, while Jiri Bubenicek's Mercutio enthusiastically displayed the character's daredevil side in his inventive gyrating leaps and acrobatics. At the ballet's reprise on June 11, Jiri retained his flamboyant role opposite his brother Otto Bubenicek as Romeo (the two resemble each other so closely it's sometimes hard to distinguish them; this made Mercutio's death scene that much more poignant). Otto's performance, while technically solid as iron, emphasized the mature side of the character so much as to make him appear almost cynical. As Juliet, Silvia Azzoni, now in her tenth year with the company, utilized her diminutive figure with so much astuteness and creativity that she literally looked like a14-year old adolescent, while the precision of her lines revealed a highly accomplished technician. Laura Cazzaniga's Countess Capulet was haughty and demure, Yohan Stegli's Benvolio happy-go-lucky but flawless in his double tours. The hauntingly dramatic Prokovief score was played with impeccable correctness and emotional grandeur by the Philharmonishes Staatsorchester Hamburg, under the inspired baton of Klauspeter Seibel (for both performances).

One of the really nice traditions in the Hamburg audience is the old-fashioned custom to throw flowers on the stage at the end. For both casts of "Romeo and Juliet," countless bouquets showered principals and soloists alike during the numerous curtain calls.


(Click here to read Stephan Laurent's Flash Review of the festival production of "Bernstein Dances," and here for his review of "Peer Gynt.")

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