Bolshoi season: Royal Opera House, London

In fair Verona, things are looking up
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Oh no, not another Romeo and Juliet!" Maybe the cry doesn't reverberate in homes across the land, but it certainly does in mine. Prokofiev's R&J has become big business, lodged in virtually every ballet repertory. The music - whose curdled sonorities and craggy rhythms had once seemed so exciting - is pumped out in theatres, in commercials, on radio, everywhere.

Worse, it prescribes the scenario with such watertight precision, the choreographer has no individual leeway. Faced with the prospect of the long, unvarying trudge from the opening marketplace scene to the sepulchral finale, I usually feel like throwing myself from my own fourth-floor balcony. So it's just as well that the Bolshoi Ballet's Romeo and Juliet is completely at odds with orthodox versions. Premiered last December, it is directed by Declan Donnellan (co-founder of the Cheek by Jowl theatre company).

The result is everything that groupies of Russian ballet will not want to see. As such it is a courageous enterprise from an institution whose global fame is premised on heroic spectacle and pirouettes. It's time, though, that Russian ballet was allowed to pass into the 21st century. The score, played with intensity by the Bolshoi orchestra under Pavel Klinichev, has been compressed into two acts, with only a few deviations from Prokofiev's sequential plan. Nicholas Ormerod's spare yet vivid design similarly filters the action into an abstracted arena, free of any whiff of Renaissance Italy. The dancers wear contemporary dress, mixed with retrospective borrowings from the 1950s.

So far, so good and non-contentious, especially as the cast give a performance of a lifetime. Never have I seen such cohesion, clarity, commitment. But then we drift into less certain territory, with the contribution of Radu Poklitaru, former chief-choreographer of the Moldovan National Opera. He's the one getting most of the criticism: "Where is the dancing?" people are asking. Poklitaru has discarded all conventional ballet steps, opting for a language forged out of gawky gesture and cartoon exaggeration. This is so close to the Swedish choreographer Mats Ek's there should have been a programme acknowledgement.

Poklitaru transforms Denis Savin's wonderful Romeo into an untidy, over-energised puppy, all failing limbs and floppy bounce. It's different, but valid, as is Maria Alexandrovna's lanky, combative Juliet - your typical apprentice adult, with a cackling laugh that can jar if you're expecting a decorously normal heroine. (Yes, the choreography includes vocals.) Ilze Liepa's Lady Capulet has the body-language of a neurotic vamp, her fragile surface sanity disintegrating along with the Capulet family. This is a family - and a society - out of your worst nightmare, and no wonder Juliet leaps at a chance to get away.

Tybalt (Denis Medvedev) is a relentless machine of aggression; the guests at the ball are heartless grotesques, guffawing at Tybalt's humiliation by a Mercutio (Yuri Klevtsov) in drag; the mandolin dance is performed by a hallucinatory chorus-line of operetta-style soldiers. Sometimes the movement is so caricatural, the dancers might be puppets, manipulated by fate. It's all part of the stylisation that dominates the production, from Ormerod's moving, changing wall, to Romeo and Juliet's coup de foudre when everybody else freezes and the music halts, while the lovers caress and swoon and Juliet giggles with joy.

Most stylised is the all-important, multi-purpose crowd: now reminiscent of the feuding groups of West Side Story, now like a Greek chorus, observing and manipulating - or, in the tomb scene, closing tightly in over Romeo, to watch him drink the poison. Such extreme artifice produces emotional detachment and you watch as you would a parallel species, disconnected and uninvolving. But gradually, I felt drawn in, more on an intellectual level perhaps, but no less powerful. And there were many searingly telling moments. Romeo's gentle "Hey!" to Mercutio just before Mercutio collapses dead will remain long in my mind. This is a production that might look horribly dated in 10 years time. In the meantime, though, all power to it. The story of Romeo and Juliet is so familiar, so ubiquitous, it's become hackneyed and tired. It's lost its power to startle. This is a fresh way in, to wake up your attention and get you thinking.

Bolshoi season: Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to Sat