Royal New Zealand Ballet, Sadler's Wells, London

Of Rites and Romeos
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary with new choreography. The company's visit, the first to Britain in more than a decade, features a triple bill and a new Romeo and Juliet. It's an attractive smaller company, and it gains authority with better choreography.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary with new choreography. The company's visit, the first to Britain in more than a decade, features a triple bill and a new Romeo and Juliet. It's an attractive smaller company, and it gains authority with better choreography.

It is strongest in Javier de Frutos's Milagros. This is a Deep South Rite of Spring, set to a pianola recording of Stravinsky's score. Men and women in long white skirts, circle and dip; a chosen maiden (Pieter Symonds) is singled out early on, then allowed to fade back into the crowd. Reappearing, she sits tensely on the floor, twitching her skirts and fanning herself. She's at once fragile, elegant and hysterical. The final dance is for the whole company, and the dancing is focused and strongly projected.

Mark Baldwin's FrENZy is danced to the music of the New Zealand band Split Enz, perky 1980s pop adored in its native land. Watching Baldwin's ballet in Britain, I feel I'm missing half of it: these are plainly cultural references, but I don't recognise them. Still, there are some lovely details. A line of dancers sashay in to "Six Months in a Leaky Boat", arms linked and feet skipping through what might almost be a hornpipe.

The opening Saltarello, by Christopher Hampson, is much harder to take. The dancers struggle through a fog of dry ice and taped renaissance music. Men and women dance for each other, then with each other. At first, Hampson's jumps and poses seem flattering: the dancers look assured and elegant. But it's glib choreography, without much contrast. There are plenty of solos, but he doesn't tell you much about individual dancers. Gary Harris's costumes clutter them up with heavy bracelets and, for the men, vile black ankle socks that make their feet invisible.

Hampson's new Romeo is better. He avoids invidious comparisons by moving the ballet to a 1950s-ish Italy. Café tables are dotted around the stylised archways of Tracy Grant's bright, adaptable set, and Romeo works as a waiter. Photographs of an Italian street are the backdrop for the marketplace, and a huge cratered moon hangs over the balcony scene. The Montagues and Capulets brawl with baseball bats and - unwisely - audible grunts. Gavin Sutherland conducts the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in a speedy account of Prokofiev's score.

Grant and Hampson keep the action moving, the small cast moving lightly through doomed love and feuding families. It's light on character- isation, too. Hampson gives his cast classical steps and straightforward storytelling, but his lovers lack distinction.

Juliet's recognition of Romeo is the best thing in the balcony scene: she stands up, at the edge of her balcony, showing herself to him. The duet itself is all pretty arabesques and turns, short on headlong feeling. Alex Wagner and Jane Turner dance brightly, but have little chance for emotional detail.

Hampson has plenty of steps but not much characterisation. The lads' trios for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio have jumps and turns by the yard, but the mood is unchanging. The mime scenes come off better. Ben Conquest's Mercutio is best in his fight with Tybalt, a believably nasty business with knives. This Romeo emphasises an affair between Tybalt (Geordan Wil-cox) and Lady Capulet (Pieter Symonds). Hampson and Symonds make her solo over his death a matter of cracked facades: her skirts riding up unheeded, her tight chignon becoming birds'-nested.

This Romeo has most life in its marketplace scenes, the supporting cast bringing more character detail to their roles. Hampson fills his second act with a village wedding party, bustling over the food and entertainment. Shannon Smith's cheery Benvolio joins the party and, very tentatively, tries his hand at flirting with bridesmaids, and Nadine Tyson's Nurse is earthy and shrewd.

Touring Salford, Glasgow, Edinburgh, High Wycombe and Bath to 29 May ( www.nzballet.org.nz)

Comments