Royal Opera House, Stockholm, Sweden; September 27, 2013
Since leaving his post as director of Cullberg Ballet in 1993, Mats Ek has made a name for himself as a theatre director enjoying a string of successful productions most recently an award winning presentation of Strindberg’s “Ghost Sonata” at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.
He continues to mount his ballets on major companies – “Appartement” created for the Paris Opera in 2000 was revised for the Bolshoi Ballet earlier this year – but it is 17 years since he last choreographed a full length work. His revisioned “Sleeping Beauty” was choreographed on John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet in 1996 and this May he wrote “Julia & Romeo” for the Royal Swedish Ballet, a tremendous coup for director Johannes Öhman.
To say this is a new work is an understatement. Ek has stripped away the patina of age from the well-loved story to introduce an astonishing, refreshing almost revolutionary concept. He has returned to the source for his inspiration: “A story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” And this is Juliet/Julia’s ballet. She is the one who defies family, society and state to follow her love and who pays the ultimate price.
Ek has set the ballet in what he calls ‘theatre time’ and, working with designer, Magdalena Åberg, it freely crosses the centuries. A hint of the Renaissance slips through in the ballroom scene where swirling cloaks of brilliant hue and tall hats colour the scene as well as serendipitously providing suitable disguise for Romeo and his companions. This fluid use of time includes the sadly still relevant issue of forced marriage. Dispensing with the role of a priest/confessor Julia is a tragically isolated figure. The black box set has a distinctly urban feel in an almost feral society controlled by a sinister militia. The grey metallic ‘walls’ which circle and cross the stage powered by the city folk, both heighten and frame the drama and provide a canvas for the brilliant lighting of Linus Fellbom. The opening scene with smoke billowing above the city streets is reminiscent of the urban riots experienced in London in 2011 and repeated in copycat fashion in Stockholm May 2013, almost simultaneously with the ballet’s premiere.
However the most startling innovation for a dance version of the story is Ek’s choice of music. Since Sergei Prokofiev wrote his “Romeo and Juliet” in 1938, it has become one of the most popular and recognisable ballet scores but it is also very prescriptive, telling the progress of the story step by step. Ek, working with Anders Höstedt, has instead chosen Tchaikovsky, possibly the world’s greatest ballet composer. Ignoring his ballet music he chooses symphonic works, including his “FifthSymphony”, “Variation on a Rococo Theme”, “Italian Caprice” and others. The pieces are selected with a fine tuned ear for the drama, seamlessly interwoven and well played under the baton of Alexander Polianichko.
Returning to the ballet after several months, my impression is that the company seems more at ease with the choreography and the cast changes make interesting shifts in the balance. Rena Narumi, as Julia, is a fine interpreter of Ek’s choreography finding the youthfulness, the desperation and final resignation in the character through the dance. But for me, it is the creator of the role, Mariko Kido who most completely captures first the innocent joy of youth and then the honesty and integrity on the journey to her death. She is a hard act to follow. Jenny Nilson, as the Nurse is a warm and sympathetic character: the bond with her young charge and her helplessness to change the course of destiny, both visible in her interpretation. She revels in the market scene, sporting with the young men if a little under par in true ‘nanny authority’. The ‘militia’ scoot across the stage on Segways and this mode of transport is given an ironic twist as Nurse enters on one; sporting a yellow crash helmet and heralded by Peter (Hampus Gauffin) bearing a flashing blue light.
Anton Valdbauer as Romeo is initially enthralled by Rosalinda, a haughty Daria Ivanova, who literally walks over him, but when his passions turn his love for his Juliet is absolute. Their duet in the garden, where Julia seems to float down into his arms and he lifts and embraced her in Ek’s inventive ecstasy, is blissful.
Although in this version the bonded trio of Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio is less visible – with Romeo more of an occasional visitor – Mercutio gets a staggeringly good role. Following on from Jérôme Marchard and Luce Vetere, Clyde Emmanuel Archer takes on the role as a lighter, more mercurial figure of cat-like grace. He is a veritable shape shifter, changing his movements from liquid to solid, earthed to elegant and absolutely at ease with the ambiguous sexuality of the man. He is bare-chested, wearing a black tutu skirt over his leather trousers when he confronts Tybalt in the ballroom then morphs into a butch black-clad hoody in the streets. Benvolio, Jens Rosén, is portrayed as the youngest and most dependent of the trio, a role that Rosén plays to perfection. The dance content for the trio is at times powerfully rhythmic at others aggressive and even acrobatic but never less than fully engaging. An undertone of pent-up anger pervades the street scenes, the faceless ensemble, their aggression fickle and unfocused are ever ready for a brawl. The deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt are underplayed and seem almost banal although the consequences for the lovers are overwhelming.
This society is in meltdown and legitimate authority, in the voice of the Prince, rails in vain. Jan-Erik Wikström, portraying this character steps into giant’s shoes in a role created by Niklas Ek, a performer of immense presence. He approaches the Prince from a different perspective: very physical, piercing eyes and flailing arms in an absolutely convincing portrayal. Julia’s father, Andrey Leonovitch has both the strong presence and the looks to make him an imposing figure. Ek captures the pain as Leonovitch in circling and rocking movements struggles to come to terms with the cruel dictates of honour. The security guards enter to enforce the edict and the father must kill his daughter. But there is no absolute evil in this reading – all appear to be victims as well as aggressors.
The mother’s mourning on the death of Tybalt, (a well-focussed intense performance from Pascal Jansson), becomes a major scene in the ballet. I found it overlong on initial viewing but now appreciate it more. Gina Tse made a strong impression is the unsympathetic role of Juliet’s mother. She is joined by the women’s ensemble in a Grecian mourning ritual, powerful, earthed and interspersed with folk-charged skipping steps.
I am still ambivalent about the ending. Mats Ek said that he felt the reconciliation was essential to affirm the sacrifice: agreed. The militia, still on Segways, slowly pass the open grave where the feet and lower legs of the lovers sprout like fresh shoots and lower their heads in shame but the ensemble who lie supine and raise their legs in a strange ritual I find difficult to place in context. However the ballet is so rich in passion, in fine choreography, in moments of broad comedy between the heartrending tragedy, that the oddness of the ending seem hardly to matter. We can be grateful to Johannes Öhman’s persistence in persuading Ek to make this new creation for the company as it stands among his best.