Kick-boxing lovers are all skill and no heart

Ballet Preljocaj | Sadler's Wells, London; Aletta Collins | Lilian Baylis, London
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The Independent Culture

The course of true love never did run smooth. Being born the wrong side of the tracks is bad enough for a hobo Romeo. But running the gauntlet of sniper bullets, searchlights and a slavering guard dog gives his liaisons with high-born Juliet the kind of desperation that turns desire to madness.

The course of true love never did run smooth. Being born the wrong side of the tracks is bad enough for a hobo Romeo. But running the gauntlet of sniper bullets, searchlights and a slavering guard dog gives his liaisons with high-born Juliet the kind of desperation that turns desire to madness.

The French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj - whose parents fled Albania just days before he was born - clearly has no interest in repeating Shakespeare's story of innocence abused, still less in following the detailed narrative of Prokofiev's score. In this version - made in 1990 and now revived for Dance Umbrella - there are no parents, either Capulet or Montague, to forbid their children's love. And the Prokofiev is cut by half. What music is left is overlaid with an ominous soundtrack of sirens, chopper blades, whispered messages and footsteps retreating down Kafkaesque passageways. This is Romeo and Juliet with an agenda.

Enki Bilal's set is an ugly concrete watchtower built over an ancient rampart peppered with bullet holes. At its base is a mortar-blasted cave where Romeo and his gang hang out, risking their necks in reckless attacks on the leather-clad militiamen charged with keeping social order. The street fights are one of the few elements recognisable from the usual ballet libretto: the artisans choreographed in raggedy, flailing spins and leaps; the soldiers in sleek, bullet-headed thrusts.

Aurélie Lobin's big-boned Juliet is no blushing rosebud. Nor is her nurse - danced by two clones for a reason I couldn't fathom - the comforting, apple-cheeked minder. This would be fine except that the music says otherwise. Prokofiev's melodic themes dictate with absolute precision both the look and emotional characteristics of these people, and Preljocaj's deliberate disregard of this puts him on a hiding to nothing.

One can see that the intention was to strip the story to its political essence, but the narrative keeps tripping up on inconsistencies and omissions. How did a sewer rat like Romeo come to be at a rich man's party? What would such a man's daughter see in a boy like that? And why would a nurse (or nurses) so lacking in warmth and empathy go to the trouble of fixing up a secret wedding? Nothing adds up, with the result that we lurch from scene to scene, caring less and less about who does what and why.

Yet the combination of oppressive stage-setting and visceral, sometimes violent choreography throws up some gripping moments. The foreplay is a kind of kick-boxing, and the balcony climax a desperate and prolonged maypole twirl, shoulders and faces jammed together, Juliet's body flying out like a flag in a gale. This is thrilling.

Stronger still is the final scene, in which Romeo nuzzles Juliet's comatose body like a grieving dog, before lugging her to a chair and flipping her about like a piece of hammered steak. Her own death comes - an inspired stroke this - some time after the music's final chord has died away, so that the razor's quiet "schlick" sounds sickeningly casual and prosaic.

I might have been moved by this, and I should have been. But I was still puzzling over why, with no need to avoid marrying Paris since there was no Paris, Juliet had feigned death in the first place.

There was rather more amusing bafflement to be had at the start of Aletta Collins's The Wedding, a Bridget Jones-style treatment of the Stravinsky score Les Noces. The first joke was seeing Collins, alone on stage clutching a bunch of roses, a good seven months into the pudding club. Thus restricted in her range of movement (the bump is all her own), Collins wittily makes a little go a long way. The first minutes of choreography, if you can call it that, turn on a nervous tick: Collins removing imaginary hairs from her smart frock with the kind of obsessiveness that to armchair psychiatrists signals uncertainty and desperation to please, if not full-blown paranoia.

Then follows a mad duet with the bouquet, which comically zooms about on invisible wires, or floats serenely beside her like a proud father. When the music sings of drinking, a bottle of vodka obligingly appears from the ceiling, followed by a raft of white goods: the toaster, the microwave, and a fridge-full of canapes, which Collins duly munches her way through.

Finally, she appears to have forgotten about the ceremony. The message is clear: hang the vows, but marriage still requires a dowry and proof of fertility.

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