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Romeo and Juliet dance for the king of speed and danger

Elena Lobsanova and Guillaume Cote in "Romeo and Juliet"

Bruce Zinger

Romeo and Juliet

  • National Ballet of Canada
  • Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky
  • At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Wednesday

There's so much going on in the new National Ballet of Canada's production of Romeo and Juliet, it's worth seeing more than once just to come to grips with the complex choreography.

By commissioning this version from superstar Alexei Ratmansky, artistic director Karen Kain is setting aside John Cranko's much-loved production. And I confess, Cranko was in my head as I was watching Ratmansky's work and listening to Prokofiev's iconic score.

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Has Kain's gamble paid off? It has in terms of the choreographer's dramatic arc. This is a Romeo and Juliet that builds in both excitement and pathos.

After a routine start, Act One ends with an incredibly challenging balcony-scene pas de deux. (Elena Lobsanova as Juliet actually slipped coming down from a lift.) The second act raises the ante with electrifying fight sequences.

Act Three is the clincher because of its originality. Ratmansky, who has up until that point been very faithful to Prokofiev's scenario, adds in some unusual touches of his own. In fact, the third act is absolutely compelling theatre because of the original scenes he's put in, including an elegant dream sequence.

And this is one gutsy production. Ratmansky and designer Richard Hudson have taken huge chances.

Take Hudson's imposing set, for example. It's going to be controversial, but I appreciated how he manifests the simplicity of early Renaissance art with a towering castle and rugged side walls coloured Tuscany brown. They dwarf the dancers.

Everything is larger than life, including the posts on Juliet's bed, the mountains of drapes that define her room, the Romanesque arches of Friar Lawrence's cell and the upper gallery of the ballroom. But somehow, the cavernous space highlights the intimacy of the story.

In Hudson's beautifully detailed period costumes, the dancers look like paintings that have come to life. Collectively, they are the 15th-century redux.

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Hudson has not made the Montagues and the Capulets colour-specific, but somehow that doesn't seem to matter. Having believable people on stage is more important and we can certainly keep track of the lead characters amid the colourful crowd.

The market scenes are devoid of the customary fruit and vegetable barrows. One assumes Ratmansky and Hudson made the call to concentrate on the quintessence of the story rather than include merchant vendors for verisimilitude in the town square.

This makes for a pretty empty space. But on the other hand, it creates an unencumbered corps de ballet who can now fully commit to dance. There are also relationships hinted at among the corps, romantic and otherwise, that parallel the main story line, but you have to be quick to catch them.

Ratmansky's choreographic gifts are two-fold: He is brilliant at drawing character and he understands how to highlight dramatic moments within the music. In fact, I heard the score as even darker and more sombre than ever before.

Guillaume Côté's Romeo is a jumping, whirling virtuoso. Ratmansky has fused together Russian dance tricks to portray a young man with testosterone raging, which Côté performs to perfection.

First soloist Lobsanova is getting a well-deserved push with this starring role. She is absolutely beguiling as Juliet, never letting technique get in the way of character. Her movement combines surgical precision with lyrical grace, the perfect quintessence of a ballerina.

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Mercutio (Piotr Stanczyk) is cheeky and naughty. A bend of the knee here, a grind of the torso there, and his endearing charms and irrepressible personality bubble forth. Stanczyk's interplay with Benvolio (Robert Stephen) and Romeo is charming.

The veneer of Tybalt (Jiri Jelinek) is a swaggering tough guy with a short fuse. To show Tybalt's anger and frustration, Ratmansky has given him a series of fast jumps, each successive one in an alternate direction. Oddly, the Jumping Jack motif makes him both manly and vulnerable at the same time.

The choreographer's choices are full of surprises and some may not be to all tastes. He takes Prokofiev literally – the Dance of the Knights, usually a stately dance for both men and women at the ball, now becomes an alpha male ensemble piece for men carrying swords.

When Ratmansky deviates from Prokofiev, it is also a surprise: The third-act dream sequence symbolizes the grief of Romeo and Juliet's separation. The men and women of the corps lift and carry them through space but they never touch each other.

Overall, Ratmansky is the king of speed and danger. Intricate footwork, dizzying spins, fast-paced leaps and lunges – luckily, the National Ballet dancers are technical wizards.

Does Ratmansky thrust Cranko to the back burner? Suffice it to say that both ballets have a place in history. Cranko has the heart, but Ratmansky has the theatrical derring-do.

Romeo and Juliet continues until Nov. 27.

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