The Stuttgart Ballet's Romeo and Juliet takes place in a Verona of sunlit skies and lovingly detailed market stalls. It's a decent, well-paced production, using its Prokofiev score to tell a clear story. This first night was lively but lightweight, lacking intensity.
The company is in London for the first time in 27 years, appearing as part of the new Spring Dance season at the London Coliseum, and they've brought the production that gave the Stuttgart Ballet an international reputation. The choreographer John Cranko took over the company in 1961, and made it famous.
Cranko's Romeo and Juliet is divided between the bustle of big scenes – the marketplace, the Capulet ball – and intimate pas de deux. The duets are on a big scale, with athletic lifts and swooning gestures. Though they are full of embraces, they are not particularly strongly characterised.
Cranko's Juliet is less decisive than many. She waits for her Romeo to lift her down from the balcony, for instance, rather than pushing the scene forward. Yet she has gusts of temperament: in the bedroom duet, she drums her feet on the floor, like a child having a tantrum over the loss of a new toy.
Katja Wünsche has fast footwork and clear mime, but her Juliet lacks dramatic depth. Her feet speed through fluttering bourrées, suggesting her excitement, but she doesn't build on those moments. As Romeo, Friedemann Vogel bounds with adolescent enthusiasm. There's an exuberant bounce to his jumps, and he handles Cranko's tricky partnering with aplomb.
Neither has much drive. Though both Wünsche and Vogel have nice moments, they don't make this a headlong rush towards tragedy. Throughout this production, the story's turning points need more force.
When Romeo and his friends gatecrash the Capulet ball, Cranko takes care to show them planning their way in. After the marriage, Romeo backs away from a fight with Tybalt, leaving Mercutio to take his place. It is easy to overlook those moments. They're there, but they could be stronger.
For this visit, there's another reminder of the Stuttgart Ballet's 1960s heyday. Marcia Haydée – Cranko's own muse, this production's original Juliet – has returned to play Lady Capulet. She's a dignified presence, but she, too, needs more impact. When Tybalt dies, she mourns over the body, tearing her clothes. Yet this moment doesn't match the huge scale of the music.
There are vivid touches. Ludmilla Bogart makes a warm-hearted Nurse, her relationships precisely sketched. The death of Filip Barankiewicz's Mercutio has the messy look of a real accident. Romeo steps in, there's a scuffle, and Mercutio steps right into the point of Tybalt's sword. Jiri Jelinke's Tybalt is brilliant here: that sword thrust is as big a surprise to him as it is to anyone else. It takes him a moment to recover, and just a little longer to start swaggering over it.
Jürgen Rose's designs are light and airy. He gives the marketplace several levels, with pillared arcades and towers against the bright sky. His ballroom has a banqueting room beyond it, just visible behind arches and gauzes. As Romeo and Juliet first dance together, you can see the other party guests at dinner behind them, never far away.
Cranko is good on the crowd scenes. Prokofiev wrote acres of marketplace music, which this production cheerfully fills. Fight scenes are brisk and naturalistic. Between brawls, citizens go about their business. One woman inspects a goose for sale, while others make off with dropped vegetables. A fruit-seller fusses over his barrow, which has little lemon trees as well as apples.
Cranko's Romeo and Juliet is a dance drama, with the focus as much on naturalistic gesture as on dancing. The Stuttgart company dance and bustle neatly, but they could do with more force throughout.
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