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Royal New Zealand Ballet
Paul Mathews in “Black Swan, White Swan” by Mário Radačovský. Photograph by Stephen A'Court

Violent Delights, Violent Ends

Two Broadcasts by Royal New Zealand Ballet

Broadcast
Royal New Zealand Ballet: “Romeo and Juliet” filmed at St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand, August 16, 2017
Broadcast
Royal New Zealand Ballet: “Black Swan, White Swan” filmed at the Opera House, Wellington, New Zealand, May 31, 2019
Words
Madelyn Coupe

When it comes to restaging canonical works, the process is extraordinarily complex. A myriad of difficulties can emerge depending on how much or how little a new work differs from the original ballet. Every aspect of the restaging—from form to characterisation and plot—does not exist in isolation; the theatrical elements are irrevocably tied to and haunted by the canonical predecessor. How a choreographer, then, approaches a restaging is uniquely singular them and their creative practice.

The next two episodes from Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Live in Your Living Room” series share one distinct similarity; they are both restagings of canonical works. By looking at these two ballets side by side, two very different choreographic approaches to restagings can be seen—one is traditional, whereas the other is contemporary.

Episode Five: “Romeo and Juliet”

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Stephen A’Court

Francesco Ventriglia’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a traditional restaging of Shakespeare’s canonical work. Performed to the well-known score by Sergei Prokofiev, the production is set in Renaissance Verona with costumes and design by the Academy Award-winning James Acheson. Romance consumes every aspect of this ballet—from the music to the movement. The audience is transported into the sumptuous beauty of yesteryear, where families duel for their honour and love is easily given.

Watching Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham dance the star-cross’d lovers is a true delight—their pas de deux in Act 1 is simply superb. Skelton is everything you want your Romeo to be—handsome, passionate, and heroic—and Graham’s sweet depiction of Juliet matched succinctly. Ventriglia’s choreography showcased the technical skills of each dancer and allowed Skelton and Graham to embody their characters so seamlessly. Credit should also be given to Massimo Margaria (Mercutio) and Filippo Valmorbida (Benvolio) who injected humour and comradery into their performance.   

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham in Ventriglia’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Stephen A’Court

There is a moment, however, near the end of the ballet, where Ventriglia’s dramaturgical decision worked against the heart-wrenching tension created by the lovers. Balletic adaptations of “Romeo and Juliet” commonly diverge from the Shakespearean plot; the most notable occurs in Act 3 with the presence of Friar Lawrence. In the play, traditionally, the final events unfold in this order: Upon finding Juliet’s body, Romeo poisons himself; Juliet awakes to find Romeo dead; Friar Lawrence enters and tries to persuade Juliet to leave with him, but she refuses; then, after the friar leaves, Juliet stabs herself to join Romeo in death. In most ballets, by contrast, Friar Lawrence does not enter after Romeo’s death—productions will finish with the uninterrupted death of the lovers or include an epilogue where Friar Lawrence and the families find the bodies.  

Ventriglia, in his restaging, follows Shakespeare’s order of events; however, in this instance, the entrance of Friar Lawrence breaks the dramatic tension caused by the lovers’ plight. The whole ballet careens towards this final scene in the Capulet family crypt, yet narrative momentum is haltered with the entrance of the friar. He, ultimately, detracts from the relationship that Skelton and Graham created over three acts. A small misstep in an otherwise beautiful restaging.

Episode Six: “Black Swan, White Swan”

Kirby Selchow and Paul Mathews in “Black Swan, White Swan” by Mário Radačovský. Photograph by Stephen A’Court

“Black Swan, White Swan” is a contemporary restaging of “Swan Lake” by Mário Radačovský. It is, in the simplest terms, a ballet that will divide its audience; some people will appreciate how it experiments with tradition, but others will only ever see what it is not—that being a lavish production of “Swan Lake.” The key to understanding Radačovský’s version lies in how he subverts character and form.

Odette and Odile are no longer the driving forces of the ballet; rather, narrative responsibility is given to Siegfried and Rothbart because they are the main subjects. “Black Swan, White Swan” is centred around Siegfried’s torment. As the ballet opens, he is given a terminal diagnosis that causes him to question his mortality. Rothbart appears as the physical manifestation of his sickness—he pushes and abuses the frail state of Siegfried’s mind. Paul Mathews’ characterisation of Siegfried is filled with pain, indecision, and anguish. His tense and, at times, violent relationship with Kihiro Kusukami, who danced the role of Rothbart, was a highlight of the show.

Royal New Zealand Ballet in Radačovský’s “Black Swan, White Swan.” Photograph by Stephen A’Court

Alongside the subversion of character, Radačovský also experiments with the physical form. He reinterprets the image of the classical swan—that of a woman in a white tutu with a feathered headdress and fluid arms—and creates something more angular and animalistic. To achieve this, the dancers (dressed in a simple white leotard and shorts) extend one arm above their head, their fingers clasped together to form a beak, and they move their hand in an erratic and sharp manner that mimics the movement of a swan. Radačovský does not present a romanticised image—one that we have become so accustomed to in “Swan Lake”—nor does he present a romanticised tale of Siegfried and Odette.

“Black Swan, White Swan” deprives you of the excess that is associated with a production of “Swan Lake.” It is not lavish, and it does not feature grand sets or sumptuous costumes. Instead, this restaging asks you to disregard any expectations you might have. Because the sooner you accept the production for its face value, the sooner you can appreciate how it experiments with the classical canon.   

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