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Romeo and Juliet: Ballet review - 'a real gusto occasion, and everybody knew it'

Royal Opera House, London

There are debuts that make an audience giddy with excitement. Natalia Osipova, the magnificent ex-Bolshoi ballerina, has just joined The Royal Ballet. Her first appearance as a member of the company was an electrifying performance as Juliet. This is dancing of extraordinary power and presence.

Osipova has expressive, gamine features, a gazelle-like jump and astonishing charisma. Her line is open and expansive, with a pliant torso and speedy, articulate feet. She’s an instinctively dramatic artist, which makes her a fascinating match for The Royal Ballet. Though Osipova comes from a different, Russian tradition, she’s joining a company with a rich repertory of narrative ballets. I can’t wait to see her get her teeth into them.

Her Juliet is wonderfully wilful. In Kenneth MacMillan’s production, as in Shakespeare, Juliet is an ardent, active young woman, ready to take the initiative – but few Juliets can have seized it as fiercely as this. In early scenes, Osipova can be a minx, switching from tomboy to demure young lady in a moment. When she first sees Carlos Acosta’s smitten Romeo, it’s a moment of doom: her world has changed, and there’s nothing light-hearted about it.

Acosta, who dances with sunny warmth and a rich flow of movement, is an easy-going man caught up in this Juliet’s whirlwind. In the balcony scene, she surges through the ecstatic lifts as he holds her adoringly upwards. MacMillan’s duet ends with a kiss that Romeo initiates; Osipova’s Juliet is clearly prompting him to it.

When her family urge her to marry Paris, Osipova goes through all kinds of resistance. As Christopher Saunders’ Lord Capulet pulls his daughter forwards, her body goes rigid with determination. When Paris tries to take her hand, she rises on pointe to glide away from him, proud and resolute from her lifted chin to her steely, quicksilver feet. 

In the tomb scene, MacMillan’s Romeo can’t accept Juliet’s death, half-carrying, half dragging her through the steps of their earlier duets. Osipova and Acosta are a little careful here, but Acosta dies with touching determination. He tries but fails to keep hold of her hand as the poison hits him.

Osipova revives with a sleepy snuggle, stretching out as if reaching for Romeo in bed. Finding her lover dead, she’s every bit as resistant as he was, pummelling his chest and heaving him up to kiss her. Her every move is headlong – including her death, which leaves her agonisingly far from him. As she crawls back to his body, you can see the moment when she realises she won’t make it.

This was Osipova’s night, but she was surrounded by fine support – though not from the orchestra, which hooted and squealed under conductor Barry Wordsworth. Genesia Rosato was a protective Nurse, all too aware that this Juliet is headed for trouble. Ricardo Cervera’s Mercutio was teasing and clever, while Laura Morera was brilliantly funny and coarse as the leading harlot. The company performance had real gusto: this was an occasion, and everybody knew it.