English National Ballet first performed Rudolf Nureyev’s version of Romeo and Juliet 40 years ago, when the company was known as the London Festival Ballet. The production is back to mark ENB’s President and former Artistic Director Dame Beryl Grey’s 90th birthday.
Most ballet fans are more familiar with Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece for the Royal Ballet, which is rarely out of that company’s repertoire for long. There are quite a few differences in the two productions, and if Nureyev’s choreography for the star-cross’d lovers never quite reaches the heavenly heights of MacMillan’s work, there is still much to admire in the ballet.
The crowd scenes, in particular, have a raw bawdiness and even if there is a little too much bottom-wriggling by Mercutio, it all adds to the fun. At the ball where Juliet first meets Romeo, the dancers perform the famous Dance of the Knights (which will be recognised by TV fans as the theme tune to The Apprentice) with vigour, clad in gorgeous deep reds and golds.
The stage at the Royal Festival Hall appears at times a little cramped for this large production – there are 60 performers in each show – and the lighting is on the gloomy side for some of the scenes.
As first night cast Juliet, Erina Takahashi brought a delicate beauty to her dancing. She has a soaring jump and speedy footwork which perfectly convey a young girl on the brink of womanhood. In her dances with Romeo – Isaac Hernandez in great form – she moves swiftly from adolescent playfulness to adult passion.
There is plenty of dancing for the men in this ballet, but then Nureyev was always one to put men centre stage – they are not just there to make the ballerina look pretty. So we get a fine display of flag-throwing (yes, it’s Verona, not Siena, but let’s not quibble) and some great horseplay between Romeo and his friends. Mercutio’s death is especially affecting; always the fool, the crowd fails to see he is really dying and mocks his agonies, thinking he is playing for laughs once more.
When Tybalt dies, it is Juliet who goes into paroxysms of grief, instead of her mother, which is the usual interpretation.
Full marks to the English National Ballet Philharmonic, under the sure baton of Gavin Sutherland, playing Prokofiev’s dramatic score beautifully and leaving me in tears at the end.
If you do not get a chance to catch this show in London, it will be on tour later in the year, with a series of performances scheduled in Bristol in November.
The English National Ballet is at the Royal Festival Hall until August 5.