Romeo and Juliet, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

Last Autumn, the Royal Ballet's Lauren Cuthbertson was a promising soloist. In the past few months, she has powered up into something more: a strong Lilac Fairy; increasingly impressive in Balanchine roles. On Easter Monday, she danced her first Juliet, and stepped out like a ballerina.

There's an extra excitement about this debut, because Cuthbertson is very young. She joined the company from the Royal Ballet School in 2002, after winning 2001's Young British Dancer of the Year. She is long-limbed, with clean lines and a springy strength to her feet and back. The movement is rich and full; steps are full of contrast, of vivid impetus.

Her Juliet shows that she can act, too. Kenneth MacMillan's production, one of the most popular in the repertoire, asks for both mime and danced drama. In the balcony scene, she sweeps round Edward Watson's Romeo in a line of bourrées, tiny steps on pointe. They're hard for any ballerina; Cuthbertson's flickered, light and fast and perfectly shaped, catching the music in rising excitement.

When Romeo is discovered gatecrashing her parents' ball, Juliet is sent back to her nurse. Cuthbertson and Genesia Rosato made this a wonderful moment - her rushing, thrilled account of Romeo, the nurse's recognition of him as a Montague enemy, Juliet's shock lost in fresh excitement. It's a tiny, brilliant picture of two women, one growing up fast.

This Romeo was a double debut. Edward Watson has been everybody's favourite soloist for a while now, but this was his first chance at a three-act lead. Watson's involvement is one of his greatest strengths: he pays attention not just to his own role but to the whole ballet around him. His eagerness and his slight, long-limbed build make him a very young Romeo - "coltish," said my companion. Seeing Juliet, he keeps breaking into almost goofy smiles. But however his face changes, his body is still addressed to her, yearning from the ribcage out.

Romeos can sweep through this ballet on feeling, but it's a classically demanding role: fast footwork, jumps, attitude turns. Watson's isn't ideally crisp, but he doesn't fudge anything: the shape is all there. It is also dramatically paced; he builds those lovestruck, dizzy turns to a crescendo.

This was a debut performance. Cuthbertson and Watson are still coming into focus in places, especially in the last act. Their adolescent love affair is more moving than their deaths, though Cuthbertson is passionate in defying her family. They're good in this version's very tough partnering, but there's room to gel more.

After a clunky first scene, the company tightened up. The corps pay attention to upper-body detail, and there are good performances in smaller roles - Rosato's nurse, Vanessa Palmer animated as a harlot, Tim Matiakis dancing with bite in the mandolin dance. José Martin needs more wit as Mercutio; Yohei Sasaki, as Benvolio, makes a better job of timing the sword fights. But it was Cuthbertson's and Watson's day: an auspicious one.

To 16 April (020-7304 4000)

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