First Night: Romeo and Juliet, O2 Arena, London

A love story big enough for the O2
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The Independent Culture

How do star-crossed lovers register in an arena? The O2 is almost six times the size of the Royal Opera House, where the Royal Ballet dance Romeo and Juliet.

Some details do get swallowed by this venue. The big crowd scenes blur, but Kenneth MacMillan’s famously impassioned duets keep their power. As the story’s focus shrinks to Juliet’s bedroom, then her tomb, the ballet reaches out conquer this cavernous space.

Arena ballet isn’t new. The Royal Ballet has danced in huge venues abroad; in Britain, English National Ballet regularly does Swan Lake in the round, the traditional choreography reworked for a circular stage. For the Royal Ballet’s O2 experiment, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo, created in 1965 for an opera house stage, is almost unchanged. Nicholas Georgiadis’s sets have been simplified, and there are short film interludes to cover scene changes. Otherwise, it’s danced straight.

There’s film during the performance, too. As at the biggest rock concerts, screens give closeups of the performers. The dancers are working on two levels, for the camera and for the auditorium.

For the Royal Ballet, this is an important experiment, an attempt to bring ballet to a wider, probably younger audience. The practised ripple of applause that greeted the lead dancers suggests that plenty of Covent Garden regulars had made the trip down to Greenwich. Other audience members came and went, popping out for drinks or eating pizza during the overture. The evening ended with a roar of approval.

This production is a good choice for arena transfer. It’s been packing audiences in for decades, a huge popular hit long before the Royal Ballet thought of the O2. Its first performance, danced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, made the Guinness Book of Records for the greatest number of curtain calls.

The choreography has some of MacMillan’s best-loved pas de deux, Juliet soaring in Romeo’s arms. Prokofiev’s score is stirring, with surging love music and the famous “Dance of the Knights”. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra play live, though there’s a touch of tininess to the amplification, the different instruments separated out.

The crowd scenes look small-scale on this open stage, without the frame of a proscenium arch. Though the company dance strongly, it’s much harder to pick out the ongoing dramas in the bustle. The ballroom scene, with its sweeping dances, is still remote.

It’s the individuals who make the ballet work. Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta, the first-night lovers, are international dance names with big personalities. When Rojo’s Juliet dashes in, still playing with dolls, her attack and energy reduce the distance between stage and public. There’s a wonderful scale to her dancing, an abandon in her flowing line.

Acosta is on form as Romeo, focused in his solos and ardent in the duets. The whole company is on its mettle for this new venture, dancing with fierce pride for a new audience. In luxury casting, Sergei Polunin danced Benvolio, stepping in to lead the mandolin dance with sensational verve. Rupert Pennefather is an elegant Paris, sure of his rights but not certain how to insist on them. Elizabeth McGorian rages grandly over the corpse of Thiago Soares’ swaggering Paris.

But it’s Rojo who carries the performance. The last act focuses on Juliet: her confrontations with her family, her flight to Friar Lawrence, the lovers’ deaths in the tomb. Rojo’s drive brings these scenes into closeup, intimate even in the O2.

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