Dance: Dance to the death breaks every heart

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The Independent Culture
IN THE second scene of Sir Frederick Ashton's Romeo and Juliet, Juliet leaps like a kitten on to her nurse's lap, drawing quick courage for the prospect of wifehood deemed appropriate by her parents. If she had known what was good for her, she would have stayed there. From that moment on, like all Shakespeare's tragic heroines, she is on the road to ruin. And in this English National Ballet production at the Festival Hall, Trinidad Sevillano, as Juliet, is so intensely dramatic an actress that she takes us along, inch by inch, breath by breath, until the last. Seldom does a dancer manage to break the audience's heart like this.

One of the reasons we are drawn so unwaveringly into her fate is the nature of Ashton's version. His is a fantasy world of lyrical, almost poetic steps, a world of ballrooms and bedrooms and streets. Nothing exists outside of it, and nothing matters but the action within it. All the hallmarks of his quintessentially English style are there, sometimes veering towards the quaint, but held within strict boundaries by old-fashioned manners. Romeo is so polite. We are spared the laddish fellow of Ben Stevenson's version and are presented instead with a persuasive, rather eager- to-please suitor, far more comfortable gently coaxing in the love duet than showing off. The sultry Patrick Armand, a former member of the company, is neat and gracious, seeming not to mind that his is the lesser role.

Ashton is very precise, working meticulously close to the music, which is a problem for the company. During the Capulets' ball - a vibrant red affair so faithful to the Renaissance style one expected the Medicis to drop in - Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio were in so much trouble one could see their minds shifting, trying to work out what production they were in. 'If it's week three, it must be Romeo and Juliet.' Perhaps the problem with doing a different production every week, as the ENB has done for the summer season, is that there is never enough time to rehearse properly.

This flaw remained throughout the crowd scenes, redeemed only in the fierce sword fights (when forgetting which production you're in could prove fatal). This scene was wonderfully theatrical, Mercutio (the willowy Tim Almaas) raging against the dying of the light and the brilliantly feline Tybalt (Kevin Richmond) tumbling dramatically, in his black-and-white striped rubber suit, down a whole flight of steps to his death.

The third act, like much of the production, belonged to Sevillano. She was Juliet, dancing always in character, the wellspring coming from deep within. She was every bit the woman falling in love, at first shy, sceptical of the man's advances, then, having been won over, devouring her lover, as new lovers do, and moving to the ecstasy of knowing irrevocably that nothing will ever be the same again.

Equally memorable was her sweet sorrow of parting, when Romeo is forced into exile for avenging the death of his friend Mercutio. She panics, twice ripping off his cloak, refusing to let love go. The bones won't work when go he must: she becomes a floppy doll, defeated, in his arms. Later, when she agrees to her parents' wishes that she marry Paris, the muscles sink, the shoulders stoop, as the oppression of the situation takes hold. Sevillano dances for her life, but, in the end, it does not help. That is the tragedy.

This production was first performed in 1955, and revived in 1985 by the ENB, so intriguing Ashton, who couldn't believe it could be ferreted out after all those years, that he added new bits to it. It was almost as if he created it as a vehicle for Sevillano - it could have been called Juliet - knowing that with the right dancer-actress, he could make Shakespeare even more accessible, more heart-rending, in the dance than in the play. Whatever the faults of the company, Sevillano was one dancer who never let him down.