Derngate, Northampton, UK; September 9, 2013
Created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1955, Frederick Ashton’s “Romeo and Juliet” is very much a chamber ballet. Ashton strips out much of the Verona backdrop, many of the characters and some of the scenes. That does mean some things are lost, including any sense of the Capulets and Montagues as feuding families. Indeed, Romeo and his cousin Benvolio are the only Montagues in the ballet. Reflecting the hopeless romantic that he was, Ashton instead hones in on the two lovers and presents a very personal antagonism by Tybalt towards Romeo.
Lovers of the familiar MacMillan version will no doubt miss the darker side of things. There’s also little grandeur and very few big set pieces, although this only adds to the seamless feel to proceedings. The story is always moving on. There are moments when the lack of numbers looks a bit odd, not least the townsfolk being reduced to a mere ten. Even less take part in the Dance of the Knights. But don’t be put off, because although this “Romeo” may appear modest, it’s also very stylish. There’s plenty to savour and lots of beautifully crafted choreography that includes much fiendishly tricky footwork, especially for Juliet.
Unlike the MacMillan, where Juliet should initially appear uncertain and shy, Ashton’s version has both lovers very obviously smitten from the word go. So smitten in fact, that you suspect they’ve met previously. Both the balcony scene and morning pas de deux are rhapsodies of adolescent romance, full of passion yet with some equally delicious little moments. A repeated motif has Romeo folding Juliet’s arms over her own shoulders, often before whisking her across the stage in one of the Ashtonian lifts where the women’s feet skim just inches off the floor. It made my spine tingle, and I would suggest a few others’ too.
Ryoko Yogyu was not only delightful, but completely believable as Juliet. Not in the least fazed by an early slip, her dancing was fast and light. Her footwork was pinprick sharp and it needed to be. Some of Ashton’s batterie is not only complicated, but lightning fast. She can act too. Her uncertainty over taking the sleeping potion was all too evident. Contemplating taking it, she stands centre stage, shifting uncertainly from foot to foot, staring into the distance. You could almost see into her scrambled mind. It was poignant indeed.
Yogyu’s Romeo was the youthful, and very youthful looking, Luke Schaufuss, Peter Schaufuss’ son. Ashton’s first Juliet was his grandmother, Mona Vangtsaae, while his grandfather, Frank, was the original Mercutio. Add to that the fact that sister Tara sometimes dances Juliet, and it’s clear that the family connection is alive and well. Schaufuss sometimes looked a little lacking in strength. His batterie was excellent, especially during the men’s pas de trois before they go into the Capulet house, but some of his arabesques were not held as well or as high as one would have liked, and his jumps were a tad lacking, although I suspect the stage at Derngate is a little smaller than the company are used to. Still, he was believable, and that is very important. He is also clearly a very good partner.
Dressed in black leather jacket and tights, Jordi Arnau Rubio was a snarling, sneering Tybalt who would have even had Draco Malfoy (of Harry Potter fame) worried. Actually, he did look a bit like Malfoy. His swordfight with Romeo that ends with his death was taken at full throttle indeed.
Schaufuss junior was more than ably backed up by Stefan Wise as Mercutio and Ricardo Pereira as Benvolio. The two were very much the jokers in the pack, with one delightful moment of Ashton’s camp humour as they leave the ball causing most of audience to laugh out loud. Wise was very much the free-spirited Mercutio that we expect, although he very much only had eyes for his girlfriend Livia, danced sprightly by Yoko Takahashi. Peter Schaufuss himself was a very anxious Friar Laurence, who quite plainly not only tried to dissuade Juliet from marriage in the first place, but then having given her the potion was full of concern about what he had done, and the chain of events he had propelled forwards.
Although Luciano Melini’s costumes are largely excellent, those for the townsfolk are certainly not. They appear wearing a rather garish collection of clashing colours, with one of the men in a pink and purple jacket matched with stripy blue and yellow tights. I kid you not! The set is not so much minimal as nigh on non-existent. There are four steps across the width of the stage, and a bed, that doubles as an altar and Juliet’s slab in the crypt. That’s it. A series of projections should have suggested place, although on this evening they failed to materialise at all, leaving a plain white screen throughout.
Paring a story down like this and having minimal physical decoration certainly exposes the choreography. But, and this speaks volumes for Ashton, the lack of numbers, set or projections (the latter thanks to a technical glitch) was barely noticeable. That was partly down to the convincing were the leads. Of course the story is important, but it’s also because Ashton understood the value of steps and the power and emotion they alone can bring. This is a “Romeo” I would more than happily sit through again, and you can’t ask for more than that.