Ballet review: Juliet and Romeo

Barbara Newman reviews Juliet and Romeo, presented as part of Sadlers Wells’ Northern Light season.

Utter the names Romeo and Juliet, and most people think of love, unexpected and doomed. For the Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, the passionate story evokes a world far wider than romance, in which long-established hatred invariably destroys both innocence and loving devotion. Choosing Tchaikovsky over the familiar Prokofiev score and replacing velvet gowns and swordplay with neutral streetclothes and flying fists, he set his evening-long Juliet & Romeo in a hostile, brutal no man’s land that could easily be the present.

Unseen in London since 1995, the Royal Swedish Ballet gave this engrossing work its UK première as part of Sadlers Wells’ Northern Light season celebrating Nordic culture. In the riveting two-hour piece, shifting city walls continually reshape the dangerous landscape, trapping the lovers in history beyond their control, and a muscular contemporary vocabulary slams crude taunts against protective embraces with chilling immediacy.

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Don’t believe for a minute that the absence of an elaborate production rules out the realization of dramatic narrative. Here, twisted bodies, angled limbs and whiplash intensity fulfill all the nuanced momentum of an irreversible tragedy. Functioning as a true commenting chorus, the ensemble knits the featured performers into a web of crossed purposes, and the solo artists, especially Mariko Kida as Juliet and Jérôme Marchand as Mercutio, transformed stock characters into memorable individual portraits.

Firmly attuned to the traditions of Scandinavian design, Mr. Ek avoids excess and cuts straight to the narrative’s core, revealing it in movement as harsh and beautiful as the story itself. My guest said, “This is the first time I’ve believed Romeo and Juliet,” and perhaps he’s not alone in feeling that way.

The Northern Light season continues until mid-November, featuring Variations on Closer from Margrét Sara Gudjónsdóttir (Iceland), 2 and 3 October; For those who have time from Maija Hirvanen (Finland), 10 and 11 October; …it’s only a rehearsal from zero visibility corp. (Norway), 11 and 12 November; Plateau Effect from Cullberg Ballet (Sweden), 13 and 14 November. See for details.