Edward Watson and Olga Smirnova in “McGregor + Mugler.” Photograph by Sasha Gusov

Romeo & Juliet Redux

MuzArts presents a star-studded triple bill

Performance
MuzArts: “Radio & Juliet” / “Faun” / “McGregor + Mugler”
Place
London Coliseum, London, UK, November 7, 2019
Words
Rachel Elderkin

“Radio & Juliet:” my uncertainty towards this work started with the title. Set to the music of Radiohead and based around scenes from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, the name felt ominously uninventive—but then titles are rarely a strong point in dance.

The ideas within this work are better than the title suggests but, made in 2005 by Edward Clug for Ballet Maribor in Slovenia, it has already begun to feel outdated. It opens with grainy film footage of Juliet waking in an empty apartment block. Quiet and thoughtful she sits in the window frame, perhaps waiting for Romeo or perhaps they have yet to meet. Despite the home-footage style of the film it presents a gentle and intriguing opening, focusing in on subtle details of the hands, feet and eyes. This could be Juliet’s story—except the work that unfolds shatters all hopes of female agency.

How we present women in dance matters now more than ever. There have been many conversations in recent years about the roles female dancers are required to portray on stage, especially within ballet—a genre with an extensive historic repertoire. However, there is always a choice about what we choose to programme today.

Choreographically, “Radio & Juliet” is clean, sharp and stylised. Precise lines and cat-like extensions are sporadically interrupted by mechanical, isolated gestures. It is an articulate, if clinical, style that allows ENB first soloist Katja Khaniukova (Juliet) and Mariinsky principal Denis Matvienko (Romeo) to showcase their technique.

Given the unquestionable ability of Khaniukova, it is striking that in the lead role she is never allowed to take any real ownership. Even the ambiguity of the close (as she bites a lemon rather than taking poison, it’s presumed she chooses not to kill herself at the sight of Romeo’s dead body) is subverted by the ensuing return to the film footage. It pans out on Juliet in a short black dress, her eyes lifeless, floating and passive in the bath. In one image, that statement decision to give Juliet life over death is shattered by a weak and objectified portrayal of the female form.

In Shakespeare’s text Juliet is headstrong, provocative and not without agency. Yes, she kills herself for love but, along with Romeo, she chooses to do so in an act of defiance towards the constraints placed on her by family and society. In this work she makes a different decision; but it doesn’t feel defiant. 

Besides her occasional solo work, Juliet is rarely given a strong presence on stage. We see a threatening and testosterone fuelled presence from the male dancers, who take the space with high energy sequences. When they approach Juliet, they do so in a sinister and domineering manner. On Juliet’s slow and indifferent walk to the altar the role of Romeo becomes interchangeable—and it reads as if any could take her who chose to, rather than this marriage being a desperate, but equal, act of love.

I could mention the random inclusion of surgical masks and white gloves, but the less said there the better. This is ballet made in a contemporary vein, with quirks added for the sake of eccentricity. The dark, mournful tones of Radiohead’s music could have been well suited to Shakespeare’s tale but instead they aid a more sinister tone. In attempting to tell Juliet’s story and save her from an untimely but, crucially, chosen death, Clug’s ballet renders her spectacularly lifeless.

Anastasia Stashkevich and Vaycheslav Lopatin in “Faun” by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Photograph by Batyr Annadurdyev

“Faun,” by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is a delicate work well suited to its forest glade setting and the accompanying music of Claude Debussy. Danced by Bolshoi principals Anastasia Stashkevich and Vaycheslav Lopatin, it is a showcase in flexibility. Their actions are inquisitive and, the tentative tremors as they creep closer to each other, aptly animal-like. Scattered with back bends, Cherkaoui’s choreography contorts the body so that the two peer curiously at each other from odd angles, examining and exhibiting in equal measure. It is movement that requires strength, control and flexibility—which both dancers evidently have—but to run smoothly it also requires a sense of luxurious softening and that grounded, weighted connection to the floor that is inherent in contemporary dance. It is in this aspect that the work feels a little alien to both dancers. The result is a somewhat shaky and stuttering meeting between them, rather than the sensual merging of two bodies.

Edward Watson and Olga Smirnova in “McGregor + Mugler.” Photograph by Sasha Gusov

The programme closes with the world premiere of “McGregor + Mugler”—another self-explanatory title for this collaboration between choreographer Wayne McGregor and fashion designer, Manfred Thierry Mugler. From the bright metallic gold and silver of Mugler’s costumes, with their futuristic cut and feathery fringes (that reference something between punk and Hermes, the Greek messenger god) to an opening reveal (that would be unfair to give away) this is, in short, a statement showpiece.

Performed by Bolshoi prima ballerina, Olga Smirnova, and the Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson, it is bold and seductive, McGregor’s choreography designed to show off both Mugler’s costumes and the exquisite strength and power of these dancer’s bodies. It’s the kind of piece that wouldn’t look out of place as a music video, yet beneath the angular costumes and striking lighting there is also a remarkable softness. As audacious and visually spectacular as it is, there remains at least a touch of humanity to the two demi-gods that in “McGregor + Mugler” materialise before us.

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