Skip to main content

Alexei Ratmansky oversees a rehearsal of "Romeo and Juliet".

"Karen doesn't usually take risks, but when she does, they're smart ones."

National Ballet of Canada dancer Guillaume Côté is talking about artistic director Karen Kain, and her decision to commission a new production of Romeo and Juliet set to Sergei Prokofiev's iconic score.

The ballet replaces the much-loved John Cranko version, a signature piece for the National since 1964. "I love the Cranko version," Côté says, "but it is dated."

Kain puts it this way: "The Cranko version reflected the talent from 50 years ago. I wanted a production that would show off the present incredible generation of dancers, what this company is now."

Indeed, the new ballet, whose world premiere kicks off the National's 60th anniversary season on Wednesday night, is already generating international buzz. The work of red-hot choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and award-winning designer Richard Hudson, the production has opened new doors for the National, with invites to London's Sadler's Wells Theatre and New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet and, according to The New Yorker, the most sought-after choreographer in the world, Ratmansky describes his response to Kain's invitation: "Most companies already have their Romeo and Juliet. An opportunity to create a new one doesn't come around often."

The choreographer, who is currently based with American Ballet Theatre, carries both an English and Russian version of Romeo and Juliet into every rehearsal. "What drives my choreography," he says, "is finding motivation for every step. I have Shakespeare with me so I can check the words to give me a feel for the mood."

His choreographic style generates the same two adjectives from a number of dancers, including Côté (Romeo), Elena Lobsanova (Juliet), Jiri Jelinek (Tybalt) and Keiichi Hirano (Mercutio) – "busy" and "detailed." Other terms they use: speedy, tricky, technical, meaty, athletic.

Jelinek came to the National after nine years with Stuttgart Ballet, Cranko's spiritual home, where he performed both Romeo and Tybalt. "In comparison to Ratmansky," he says, "Cranko is simple. For example, Tybalt was a lot more about acting than dancing. In fact, Ratmansky has created much more dancing for everyone."

The dancers talk about Ratmansky's quest for organic physicality, a pliant, expressive upper body and quicksilver footwork. They also note his concern with how a dancer should relate to others on stage. Many choreographers work only with the first cast in rehearsals, while the other dancers are on the sidelines picking up the steps. Ratmansky, however, switches casts in the studio, tailoring the choreography to their individual strengths.

"In his response to each phrase of music, Alexei has an amazing way of using ballet vocabulary without looking predictable," Kain says. "I get both thrilled and teary-eyed in the studio watching him challenge the dancers, and I mean everyone, from the corps de ballet to the principals."

It's the first ballet for Hudson , a veteran designer of operas and the winner of a Tony for The Lion King's sets. "The costumes were fun, but I had to be careful," says Hudson, who was inspired by the frescoes of Piero della Francesca in creating his Early Renaissance setting. "The wealthy wore a lot of material, full of folds and flutes, and we had to make them danceable. But I was so pleased when I saw Lord Montague in full costume. He looked like he just stepped out of a painting."

Stage manager Jeff Morris points out a unique feature of Hudson's design. "Every corps de ballet costume is different. Richard makes an aesthetic statement with the hot colours of the costumes contrasted against the muted, restrained chalky matte of the set. Together, they evoke a Renaissance Italian walled city."

In terms of the score, Ratmansky has reintroduced sections that Cranko had cut out, including Dance of the Girls with the Lilies, the original bridesmaids' music.

"Alexei is so musical, that he actually brings the score to rehearsal, and talks about the structure of the ballet in musical terms," says musical director/conductor David Briskin. "Music is never in the background."

"This Romeo and Juliet is an historic moment," Briskin adds. "The greatest modern Russian choreographer is setting a work to the greatest modern Russian ballet score."

The National Ballet's new Romeo and Juliet runs at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre from Nov. 16 to 27.

Interact with The Globe