September 3, 2016

Love Sprung from Hate: A New Romeo and Juliet

Review: Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet (Romeo ja Julia)
The Finnish National Ballet, August 26, 2016


Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Pictured Linda Haakana and Ilja Bolotov. Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet

Going to see the Finnish National Ballet's new Romeo & Juliet without any expectations is impossible. For one thing, there's the iconic play by William Shakespeare, penned over 400 years ago (with a story dating back even further). Second, the magnificent score by Sergei Prokofiev, composed in 1935 as a dramatic ballet - even before there were any choreographed steps. And should you have seen any of the celebrated ballets since, perhaps by Ashton, MacMillan, Cranko or Nurejev... Well, you might have a lasting impression of how the tragic love story translates into dance. Then again, it can be a wonderful thing, when you don't get what you expect.

I have to admit that I had some reservations. Last time I saw Nataliá Horečná's work on stage, I could make neither head or tails of her utopian vision. In hindsight, I should have have left the libretto unread and not attempted to make any sense of it. One does not always have to "understand" art: your reception and interpretation can be different from those of friends and contemporary critics, and still be just as valid. The dancing itself was quite extraordinary though, and there were many scenes and moments that made a lasting impression. But, with Horečná's Utopia of Another Continent in the back of my mind, I could not help but wonder: what would she make of R & J, and would I even be able to recognize it? Nor was I enamoured by the press photos: costumes austere and grey, and dancers wearing not pointe shoes or slippers, but socks. It's just a personal matter of taste, but I dislike socks on dancers. Bare feet, yes. Flesh-colored slippers, yes. Nude paws, too. But socks look like contemporary dance class to me, not what I would expect in a season-opening premiere of the National Ballet. Others will disagree, and I'm fine with that.

The ballet starts with a prologue: introducing characters and foreshadowing tragedy. Romeo is first seen off-stage, hanging around next to the exit, smoking cigarette in hand. He's dressed in loose trousers and hoodie, more hip-hop than medieval Verona, a teenaged rebel without cause. On stage, all the characters/dancers, like the dramatis personae on the first pages of a play. At the back of the stage, suspended at mid-height of the curtain, two bodies entangled behind a billowing white sheet. They are lighted from behind, and we cannot make out their faces, but it is an intimate and beautiful image of love in its most sensual form...


Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Pictured Tiina Myllymäki and Sergei Popov as the "Spirits". Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

The choreographer has made some interesting choices in regard to the music. I remember hearing that Horečná would have preferred commissioning an original score, but because of time restraints she opted to use Prokofiev's famous music instead. With a major difference though: she doesn't stick to the original structure, nor does she use all of the pieces the way Prokofiev had intended. With some scenes/dances it works wonders. For instance, the Dance of the Knights is used not in a courtly ball, but in a fight scene... For me, that particular theme has always had an ominous and foreboding quality. Reminiscent of Darth Vader, if you're familiar with Star Wars. Which is why it works. Towards the end of the ballet, the music becomes even darker and more violent, in tune with tragedy, despair and hate... Lest I forget to to write down my appreciation of the orchestra: it was phenomenal. Pietro Rizzo was the conductor in the premiere, and he lifted an already beautiful score to new heights. If I hadn't been there to see the ballet, I would have closed my eyes and let my ears have all the joy.

At other times, the union of choreography and music is less fortunate. The Balcony Scene, Romeo's Variation, and the Love Dance - it's not the climax I've come to expect from Romeo and Juliet. It is not the fault of the dancers, they're dancing their hearts out... In fact, it's not really a question of fault at all. But if you've seen Cranko's or MacMillan's versions, live, or on youtube (Bolle and Ferri!), then Horečná's interpretation falls short of ecstasy. These are not the Romeo and Juliet that elevate dancers into ballet stardom (or the roles most dancers dream of). However, if you have never seen R & J, or cleanse your memory plate beforehand, then it's quite wonderful in its own right. Horečná paints Romeo and Juliet as innocents, giddy in their newfound desire for each other. At times, I feel that their childlike expression (in movement) is almost too much of a contrast to their passionate entangles and secret marriage. Yes, they are innocents, barely past childhood - but they are not without upbringing. Juliet's defiance at her father looks like a much younger child having a tantrum. Still, you cannot help but feel for these two, wish things would turn out differently, but knowing tragedy is ahead...


Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Linda Haakana as Juliet. Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

Linda Haakana danced the role of Juliet in the premiere. I get the sense that she is a perfect embodiment of Horečná's vision. She does not act Juliet, she is Juliet. Sweet and spirited, with a free will that won't bend to patriarchal society. To think that women are still regarded in too many cultures as objects to be possessed... How sad that Shakespeare's play is still relevant in so many dark aspects. Pride, hate, fear of the other, violence. Is it all written into humanity's genetic code? Romeo and Juliet have to suffer their tragic fate because they cannot escape the mistakes and heavy burdens of previous generations. This is a story ballet that one cannot take lightly. Ilja Bolotov danced the role of Romeo, a perfect match to Haakana's Juliet. Their love and desire for each other was absolutely convincing. Bolotov is boyish in appearance, and has a beautifully buoyant quality in his dancing, light on his feet with elegant lines.

Horečná's choreography has a down-to-earth feeling. Centers of gravity are lower, and steps neither limited by classical nor contemporary conventions, if not particularly innovative. There has been talk about the portrayal of violence, the many fighting scenes between the Capulet and Montagues... But in my view, the choreography is more capoeira-esque than menacing. Until the first death, that is. The senseless tragedy of it, seeing Antti Keinänen's marvellous Mercutio lost for good. "It's only a scratch!" Horečná gives her dancers not only steps, but also a voice (which seems to be a trend in contemporary works of late). It certainly is a challenge, as some ballet dancers may be natural talents, but rarely are they trained voice actors... This time, it does work though - even when you cannot make out the lines because of the music. When Juliet cries over Romeo, we need not hear more than his name. Except, in the last big scene, when the Prince of Verona screams out in anger at the city's residents, I would have liked to understand the lines. Gabriel Davidsson (as the Prince) does have a strong presence and a voice that carries, but it's no match to the orchestral volume. To be heard above the music would have required the skills of a trained opera singer.


Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Artists of the Finnish National Ballet. Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

It is not a classical story ballet, but Horečná has not abandoned classical ballet entirely. Feet are as often pointed as they are flexed, legs lifted into arabesques and attitudes, and she makes ample use of the dancers' flexibility and high extensions. Horečná has also created new characters: two couples which embody the "Spirits" (of Romeo and Juliet?), a physical manifestation of a love that is pure and free. Why there are two couples, I don't know, but here the choreography dances into neoclassical territory. The dancers are dressed in very bare costumes: pale grey leotards/short shorts and socks in the same color. It is not to appear naked, but to be unencumbered by society, status and allegiance to any group. The casting is interesting. Three out of the four dancers are Principals with the additional rank of étoile - dancing what the film industry would deem as "guest-starring roles." I have no complaints though. Tiina Myllymäki, Sergei Popov, Michal Krčmář (the étoiles), and Anna Konkari make beautiful movement with their stage time. Myllymäki especially is absolutely exquisite with her luxurious lines and ethereal presence. As the spirits dance in and out of the story, they add an intriguing and evocative layer to the ballet.

At the Finnish National Ballet, dancers are usually required to audition for new works and visiting choreographers - and unless there are scheduling conflicts, choreographers are free to cast whichever dancers they prefer, regardless of company hierarchy. Horečná has chosen several corps members to dance featured roles, most notably Thibault Monnier as Friar Lawrence. Tall, long-limbed and with a sense of drama, Monnier cuts a striking presence on stage. But why the friar is dressed in an absurd yellow butterfly-print suit under his clerical robe is a bit of a mystery to me...


Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Thibault Monnier as Friar Lawrence, Linda Haakana as Juliet.
Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

Surprisingly, the most powerful scene is not the double suicide of Romeo and Juliet, but the moment when Lady Capulet discovers that her daughter is dead. Lady Capulet is danced by Ira Lindahl, a seasoned veteran of the corps de ballet. I have to admit that I've never noticed her before (which must also be due to the corps' function - working as a whole, not as soloists), but now I most definitely did. Lindahl expresses the mother's grief which such anguish and fierce abandon that I feel as if she is creating a vortex on stage, drawing in the sorrow of everyone who has ever lost a loved one. Brava!


Nataliá Horečná: Romeo and Juliet. Ira Lindahl as Lady Capulet. Photography (c) Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

In the end, after senseless tragedy, death and despair, there remains hope. Dancers/characters return, one by one, disrobing until all external symbols of social status are erased. Nataliá Horečná wants to tell us that underneath we are all the same creatures, wishing for happiness, wanting to love and be loved in return. Let go of hate. In these times of ours, more than ever.

Go see with an open mind, and take someone who has never been to the ballet. Balettikassi gives Nataliá Horečná's Romeo and Juliet three and a half stars ★★★✰☆

Choreography: Nataliá Horečná
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor: Pietro Rizzo
Scenery and costumes: Christiane Devos
Lighting design: Mario Ilsanker

Review written by Johanna Aurava

3 comments:

  1. I love the tradition in classical ballet, but I believe it is also very important to consider new ideas or different points of view. So, this ballet definitely one I'd love to see

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  2. I just want to correct you a little bit, her name is Natália, not Nataliá.

    ReplyDelete
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