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Flash Review, 3-4: The odd couple
Star-crossed & mismatched at the Royal

Tamara Rojo as Juliet in the Royal Ballet's production of Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Dee Conway and courtesy the Royal Ballet.

By Victoria Watts
Copyright 2010 Victoria Watts

LONDON -- In what would have been Kenneth MacMillan's 80th year were he still alive, the Royal Ballet is packing its programs with his repertory. "Romeo and Juliet," choreographed in 1965, has for many people become the benchmark by which other versions of this ballet are judged, with a place in the repertory of ballet companies around the world. As is so often the case with MacMillan's evening-length works, I judge it to be patchy choreographically but there are a few key scenes which help me understand its global popularity. For example, the regimented, rather menacing Dance of the Knights is chilling. Relentlessly advancing phalanxes of tightly wound Courtiers seem unmoved by the compliant swooping and arching of their Ladies. It conveys quite plainly that this is a warrior culture, where men are men, emotions are repressed, and women know their place. Juliet's immobile despair, sitting on her bed, the music racing and surging around her, before she comes to the decision to appeal to Friar Lawrence, is also a marvelous example of choreographic restraint and narrative sensitivity. And without doubt, this is a ballet that principal dancers love to put their mark on. Over the course of this season, numerous casts of lovers got the opportunity to interpret the tale.

The performance I saw on January 12 saw Rupert Pennefather, stepping in for an injured Carlos Acosta, partnering Tamara Rojo. Pennefather is a good-looking young man and able enough technically. It was unfortunate that he, and all the other young men in Act I, seemed to be modeling their performances on the film career of Orlando Bloom. They pouted, and strutted, and preened, feigned humility, and fought, all in the style of a Hollywood pretty boy. It was disconcerting. To be fair, as the ballet progressed Gary Avis found his connection to the character of Tybalt, and gave a superbly nuanced performance in his final scenes. José Martin as Mercutio disappointed. I always expect him to be more explosive, but he dances instead like a small damp sparkler. By contrast, Laura Morera's Harlot affected the stage like Alka Seltzer in a glass of water. All fizz, and fun, and heart and excitement, Morera's dancing was captivating and seemed to energize everyone around her.

Tamara Rojo as Juliet in the Royal Ballet's production of Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Dee Conway and courtesy the Royal Ballet.

Tamara Rojo's Juliet is in many respects faultless. She demonstrates her intelligence as a ballerina in every exquisitely articulated phrase. For many of the great roles maturity is an asset. Juliet, however, is a child. I could not discern any convincing girlishness in Rojo's performance. As it is, pairing her with Pennefather does unacceptable things to the portrayal of Romeo and Juliet's romance. Pennefather seems boyish, uncertain, and a little lacking in charisma. Rojo is always in control, her strength glittering in every step. And somehow, with all this certainty in her dancing, she fails to give me any real heart, any gut-wrenching heartbreak.

Of course, a friend reminded me that I should not watch MacMillan's ballet with Shakespeare's play too firmly in my mind. I should accept that one possible interpretation for the young lovers is that Juliet is smarter and more headstrong than Romeo. It is possible that she, rather than being in love with Romeo, is really in love with the rebellion against her family, and sees this as a way to escape the repressive demands of her father. She kills herself in the end not because she cannot bear to live without Romeo but because there simply is no going back.

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