Dance review: Romeo and Juliet, Sadler’s Wells, London

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Returning to London after more than quarter of a century, the National Ballet of Canada brings Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet as a calling card. Now based at American Ballet theatre, the ex-director of the Bolshoi is one of the world’s most in-demand choreographers. The dancing is fresh, but his love story misses tragedy.

Commissioned as part of the company’s 60th anniversary celebrations, Ratmansky’s streamlined Romeo is lighter than most. Richard Hudson’s designs evoke a stylised Renaissance. A scarlet fortress looms over the town square, with precise architectural detail in its cut-out battlements. It’s a departure from tradition: most large-scale Romeos go for naturalistic weight of detail in performance as well as design.

Ratmansky’s production moves swiftly, with lots of dancing. The steps are fluent, with some touching drama. When Guillaume Côté’s smitten Romeo sees Heather Ogden’s Juliet at the ball, they’re both literally uplifted: her approved suitor Paris lifts her as they dance, while Romeo’s mocking friends give him a leg-up. Paris is possessive, the friends are teasing, while the lovers sail smitten overhead. In the balcony scene, Coté circles Juliet in giddy, jumping turns. She steadies him, then swoops into her own response.

Yet Ratmansky can’t decide how tightly to focus on his star-crossed lovers. He opens out the story, giving the Capulet family more interaction than usual, then downplays what are usually their big moments. They grieve as a group over Tybalt’s death, where many productions give Lady Capulet a huge lament to Prokofiev’s shattering music. Ratmansky slides away from that kind of intensity, weakening the drama.

As Romeo faces Tybalt, or Juliet decides to consult Friar Lawrence, they have visions of each other, often surrounded by the busy townsfolk. The crowd of imagined figures help to explain the characters’ choices, while pulling attention away from their moment of decision. As the crisis hits, we don’t get inside these characters’ hearts and heads.

Ogden dances with clean attack and intelligent acting, but she can’t quite bring us into Juliet’s world. Côté is more vivid, with a besotted glow to his plush jump and open, ardent line. Around them, the National Ballet of Canada move with bright footwork and easy upper bodies: this is a lively, confident company. The ball scene swishes with rich fabric, while the townsfolk dance more than they brawl. Piotr Stanczyk is a confident Mercutio with a bounding jump; there’s strong, sharp dancing from the carnival dancers.

Until 21 April. Box office 0844 412 4300.

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