Romeo and Juliet is generally considered Prokofiev's first masterpiece. The composer left Russia after the revolution, but he allegedly never felt at ease with the West's musical fixation on the avant-garde. Russia was clearly on his mind when he sat down, in 1935, to adapt Shakespeare's archetypal story of ill-fated teenage love. While his orchestration incorporates Italianate instruments such as the viola d'amore and the mandolin, there is an unmistakable feeling of the motherland in the force, darkness and drama of the music.
On my way into Toronto's Four Seasons Centre on Wednesday night, where the National Ballet is remounting their stunning 2011 version of the work, I ran into an older balletomane. "Another Romeo and Juliet closer to death," he said with a wink. It's a sentiment we can all share in – R&J has been staged, danced, sung, filmed, reinterpreted, re-imagined in thousands of both likely and unlikely iterations. What more do we want out of this 400-year-old tale of lust, warring families, and suicides for him and her?
I have two answers to this question. The first is Alexei Ratmansky. A MacArthur Fellow (a.k.a. the "Genius Grant") who was formerly head of the Bolshoi Ballet and is now artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theatre, Ratmansky understands ballet in a way that feels both elemental and intricate. One of my ongoing grievances with remounting story ballets is it forces audiences to put up with dated pantomime – the constant juxtaposition of silent, melodramatic acting and choreography. By shunning straightforward verisimilitude, Ratmansky seems set on rectifying this. He knows what Prokofiev's score can express about the highs (and lows) of love; better yet, he knows how to let this come to life fully and provocatively inside the body.
Instead of having town scenes in which Capulets and Montagues act out their hostility, Ratmansky conjures the fiery, antagonistic mood of Verona by having his dancers dance. Configurations of couples, the women sliding into stylish, precarious side bends, move across the stage in downward diagonals. Then, a repeated movement acts as a playful challenge between camps. The dancers stomp their turned-in feet in quick succession, followed by a syncopated unfurling of both arms. It has a modern-dance feeling (a little Jose Limon) and conveys the defensive/irreverent undercurrent of a community accustomed to violence.
Then, there's Ratmansky's beautiful evocation of love at first sight. Instead of having Romeo and Juliet frozen, centre stage, staring at each other, he has Romeo reappear in front of Juliet at different positions on stage. Both the figurative and the literal are at play in this choice: Is Romeo following Juliet around the room, or this is an externalization of what it feels like when you can't stop staring? Sweeping, complex ensemble work creates the effect of time passing and, sometimes, of moving across distances. My favourite example is the Act 3 sequence that depicts Romeo's banishment to Mantua. Juliet appears to him as a tremulous ghost in white, but then this ghost becomes real, and Juliet is suddenly in Verona, pursuing her own desperate journey to Friar Laurence. When she arrives, there's no pantomime or gesturing to stand in for conversation; the Friar simply lifts Juliet high above his head, her body suspended in a perfect crescent. It's a stunning request for help, an act of total supplication. This is ballet's strength, its ability to distill narrative and emotion through shape and movement, to let the real and oneiric overlap.
Richard Hudson's earthy, colourful set and costume designs work in perfect concert with Ratmansky's textured choreography. Hudson gives us huge, minimalist shapes – an austere citadel, a vault with giant arches – then offsets them with detailed costumes – embroidered roundlets, velveteen caps and tunics in ochre, burgundy and navy. The Capulet ball, with its arched gallery and rich brocades, is like being airlifted into the early renaissance. Since Ratmansky's ensemble scenes incorporate so much disparate but simultaneous detail, the effect is like a Bruegel painting come to life. Everywhere you look, you see tiny, quotidian drama.
But, for me, the best parts of Ratmansky's ballet are the slippery pas de deux between the young lovers. He makes use of the whole body, of all levels, of deep relinquishing back bends and mellifluous petit adagio. As Romeo, Guillaume Côté (just back from a serious knee injury) is both powerful and soft, with flawless lines, dynamic jumps and unwaveringly clear intentions. The fantastic performances go on, with Evan McKie as the most terrifyingly commanding Tybalt I've ever seen, and Skylar Campbell vivifying the tragicomic balance that is Mercutio.
All this leads me to that second thing we still want, in 2015, from Romeo and Juliet. The answer is Elena Lobsanova. Just promoted to principal dancer, she is one of those uncompromising performers who refuse to force anything (I find that ingénue roles often elicit too much smiling, too much sweetness). Forget, for a moment, Lobsanova's gorgeous extensions, powerful feet and expansive port de bras; when she runs downstage in the balcony duet she is really running; when Romeo supports her in an arabesque, she is both executing that arabesque and, it seems, becoming it. Critics have praised her moving vulnerability in the role, but I saw much more than that. I saw all the rage, courage and unbending desire that Shakespeare wrote for his heroine in those long, killer soliloquies.
Romeo and Juliet continues at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre until Dec. 5, and will be restaged from March 16 to 20 national.ballet.ca).