Romeo and Juliet, Royal Opera House, London

Hispanic fire in fair Verona
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Gone are the days when the Royal Ballet turned out a new full-evening ballet every few seasons. Instead, ballet fans are kept going with subtle changes to old ones: a re-design, or important debuts. Given the frequency with which the Royal Ballet programmes Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet (a total of 400 performances by the end of the current run) and the seven years that Carlos Acosta has been a principal with the company, it's amazing that he has not done Romeo till now.

The reason is probably to do with partnering. Temperamentally, Acosta's kindred spirit is Tamara Rojo, but until last season her Juliet was paired with Jonathan Cope, a fine MacMillan veteran whose very English reserve offered a stylistic anchor for a ballerina trained in Spain. Now Cope has retired, and the delayed coming together of the Spanish-speaking star-cross'd lovers has been met by a riot of flashbulbs.

What people love about Rojo and Acosta is their shared Hispanic fire. But what was remarkable about the Cuban dancer's debut as Romeo was a characteristic one hesitates to call diffidence, but definitely felt like a holding back. This was not a case of having an off-day. In the light of the meticulously thought-through readings the pair have given in other ballets, it's clear they had jointly decided on a dynamic imbalance: Acosta's Romeo a mere boy, dumbly in thrall to hormonal forces, leaving all the doing and thinking and passionate feeling to Juliet.

This tallies with Shakespeare's text more closely than the ballet generally allows, prescribed as it is by Prokofiev's score. One of the keys to this reading comes at the Capulet ball, where Acosta's impulsive Romeo is so wrapped up with trying to flirt with Rosaline that he doesn't notice Juliet at all, even after she's begun her very public dance with Paris. It's not until she has stumbled through her girlish thank-yous that the pair clap eyes on one another, at which point (it's not clear exactly what creates this dramatic hiatus) Prokofiev's rich string texture momentarily fades to nothing, leaving the sound of blood singing in our ears.

One of Acosta's traits is a marked naturalness on stage. At times he looks almost too relaxed, but the effect when he engages is of a foot slamming the floor of an Aston Martin. If I could see only 30 seconds of this performance, it would be Acosta's giddy attitude turns in the balcony duet. Head flung back, verging on audible laughter, it was as perfect an expression of earthly joy - as well as ballet technique - as I ever hope to witness. Rojo's response it to back away as if from a scorching heat.

Retreat, though, isn't Juliet's style, and from the balcony duet on, this is her ballet. You almost hear the cogs of her brain turning as Rojo works through the various possible tactics with her suitor: denial, physical resistance, violence, and finally dull submission. Her taking of the potion, with a naturalistic gulp followed by convulsions, is so credible it leads you to wonder what would have happened had she sicked the whole lot up.

Added details and what-ifs? have progressively refined this production to the point where I doubt it can get any better. There is little to be done about the uninspired stretches of corps de ballet work. At least the current generation of Brueghelesque apron-flappers skip to it with a will, and the late Nicholas Georgiadis's re-design adds market stalls that provide distractions. A fine supporting cast also helps: Jose Martin is a really nippy Mercutio, Thiago Soares a Tybalt in whom family pride supplants mere thuggishness. Nine leading couples are scheduled over 15 performances, but few are likely to match Rojo and Acosta's for full-blooded range and coherence.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

In rep to 10 April, 020 7304 4000

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