On the first night of the Bolshoi's Romeo and Juliet, the Royal Opera House was packed with British theatre people - actors, directors, critics. They were there to see a crossover production. This Romeo was created by the British director Declan Donnellan with the Moldavian choreographer Radu Poklitaru. It ends up as ballet without steps, without drama.
In this new Romeo, the Bolshoi is trying to update itself. The company still relies heavily on Soviet-era productions, and it's spent the last few years hunting for new directions. When Donnellan declared an interest in ballet, they were eager to accept. The experiment was worth making, but was it worth bringing on tour?
Donnellan's main interest is the distance between the lovers; the forces that separate them. That doesn't mean their warring families. The society of Shakespeare's play is barely sketched, with Montagues and Capulets indistinguishable. Instead, a featureless corps de ballet lurks about the stage, ready to stand between the lovers.
Poklitaru's choreography is a grey abstraction, heavily influenced by Mats Ek. He avoids naturalistic gesture, but dance steps too. The women are off pointe, and there are few outright dance numbers. The corps rock from side to side, thrust their hips or sink to the floor. The lovers twitch like frogs, run in circles or laugh aloud.
Donnellan does make confident use of the stage space, left clear by Nicholas Ormerod's minimalist scenery. The lurching, huddled corps is warmed by the bold yellows of Judith Greenwood's lighting. But we never do get to the speeches, to the heart of this production.
You can't care for these characters; it's as much as I could do to recognise them. Late on, I suddenly realised that Juliet was dancing with Friar Lawrence, not with her fiancé, Paris.
When the Bolshoi first visited London in 1956, the revelation was its passion and intensity in the Lavrovsky production of Romeo. Donnellan's is blankly characterised. Mercutio has no wit or swagger. To make up for it, he turns up to the Capulet ball in drag. Juliet's cousin Tybalt flirts with him, and is humiliated to realise that he has kissed another man. But there's no sexual tension, no anger, no feeling.
Donnellan has cut and re- arranged Prokofiev's score, returning to cheerful numbers just as the plot gets grim. Poklitaru doesn't respond to the music, but it's the only thing keeping this production going. The Bolshoi's own orchestra gives it shape and momentum.
In Russia, this Romeo has been welcomed as a new challenge for the Bolshoi's dancers. Poklitaru's choreography does ask them to move in new ways, making no use of their classical technique. Any dramatic impact seems made in spite of the choreography, not because of it.
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