The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC
June 1, 2016
Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo, which had its North American premiere at the Kennedy Center, left me bereft, not because I was moved by the deaths of the young lovers, but because I wasn’t moved at all.
This version of Shakespeare’s tragedy is cold and dark, literally quite dark thanks to Linus Fellbom’s lighting. It’s also, in my view, disappointingly dull. While much that I heard beforehand about the winner of the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production (British theater’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tony Awards) sounded enticing, the choreography comes across as puzzlingly clunky, as if awkward gestures were haphazardly strung together. I didn’t sense any flow to the dancing, and the storyline is difficult to follow. I waited in vain for a friar and a vial of poison.
The set and costumes by Magdalena Aberg are simple and stark. Dancers wear mainly dark jewel tones or steely gray, although Juliet (Mariko Kida) is given canary yellow or white for her wardrobe, which makes her role stand out. Indeed, the swapped order of the names in the ballet’s title presumably signals Juliet’s empowerment. The costumes are a blend of courtly pleats, lace, and capes with modern twists. Benvolio (Hokuto Kodama) wears a puffer coat and Mercutio (Jerome Marchand) dons shiny tight metallic pants and a black hoodie. Large movable walls, covered in what appears to be dark corrugated metal, constantly shift and shape the space, which in addition to the dusky light, give the production a bleak urban atmosphere.
I failed to connect emotionally to the dancing, but I do not fault the dancers for my lack of feeling. For that, I blame the choreography alone. The dancers looked lovely and appeared well-trained, it’s what they were doing that bored me. For example, there’s a lot of rolling on the floor, arms held close the body, like so many logs, as well as running in place, legs kicking up to one’s rear. Overall, the movement is unexciting, basic, and sometimes crude (more than once someone raises a middle finger or grabs a crotch). If you’re looking for pretty and/or intricate movement on pointe, you won’t find it here.
Boisterousness, though, you will find. The playful banter between Kodama and Marchand, because of their extreme physical differences (Marchand towers above Kodama), thankfully generated some interest, and occasionally some laughs (I have no idea why Mercutio puts on a tutu and flits about like a four-year-old in her first dance recital, but I appreciated the levity). And the Segways do, strangely, fit somewhat naturally into the ballet, with the smooth and silent way they slide back and forth, but the dancers don’t perform any tricks with them that would make using the vehicles on stage particularly intriguing.
Because Tchaikovsky’s score soars, and Shakespeare’s beloved tale is so full of passion, it was especially disheartening to experience Juliet and Romeo. If I had left after intermission, I don’t think I’d really have missed anything. The ending, which let me spoil it for you, features the cast on their backs with their legs stuck up in the air, like dead bugs, brought me no heartfelt sadness and no insight. Instead, I confess I was glad I finally could go home. No doubt, however, given its accolades, others love Ek’s Juliet and Romeo, and the Royal Swedish Ballet is indisputedly a handsome company.