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Sharni Spencer and Callum Linnane in “Romeo and Juliet” by John Cranko. Photograph by Jeff Busby

Language of Love

“Romeo and Juliet” returns to the Australian Ballet

Performance
The Australian Ballet: “Romeo and Juliet” by John Cranko
Place
State Theatre, Melbourne, Australia, October 11, 2022
Words
Gracia Haby

A lot can happen in a handful of days. You can find your Romeo or Juliet. Make a declaration of eternal love. You can be impetuous for nightfall. You can be drawn into a portentous duel in a market place. You can come up against history and a family feud that has little to do with you. You can be sentenced to exile. You can be grief-stricken. It can all end in the Capulet family crypt.

Shakespeare compressed months into days, and John Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet” compresses time further, into 154 minutes with two intervals. To Shakespeare’s double time1 Cranko winds the clock faster still, and so, after nineteen years, “Romeo and Juliet” returns to the State Theatre, Melbourne, with all the joyous, “breathless rapidity of incidents”2 you’d expect. Such haste on the stage, then and now.

Isobelle Dashwood in “Romeo and Juliet” by John Cranko. Photograph by Rainee Langtry

Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet” premiered in the same year that Peggy van Praagh founded the Australian Ballet in 1962. The company first performed Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 1974, and Jürgen Rose’s all things bright and dim set design reflects the contrast between light and dark, day and night, that is entwined in the classic tale. Cranko’s swirling and gridded clusters of people in large gatherings from Market Place to Ballroom are shown in contrast with the intimacy and ultimate tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, making the stolen moments they share together all the more tender and urgent. The unusual frequency of events in “Romeo and Juliet” makes it ripe for dance: everything is moving and everything is movement.

This restaging, rounding out the 2022 season with all the longed-for lyrical contrast, with principal Benedicte Bemet as Juliet to principal Joseph Caley, who joined the Australian Ballet this year from English National Ballet, as her Romeo. Together, Bemet and Caley wholeheartedly embody the light quickness of their roles presented in contrast to the slower pace the society they are bound by operates.

Chris Rogers-Wilson and Sharni Spencer in “Romeo and Juliet” by John Cranko. Photograph by Rainee Lantry

From their first pas de deux in the Ballroom, they are magnetically drawn to each other. When Juliet dances with Romeo beneath her balcony, before the close of the first Act, Prokofiev’s magnificent score is like the fast heartbeat. It is suffused in Bemet’s impossibly nimble flickering feet. It is in every facet of the choreography, that rush of emotions, building upon the inquisitive ‘I like you, I really like you’ of their first pas de deux. It is a flutter, like the feelings in the heart. It is young love; new love; a spark that has settled and is burning. And it sweeps me along, as Juliet runs backwards and gently falls, safe in the knowledge that in this game of trust Romeo will catch her. And he does, again and again, without fail. This playful exploration of aching gestures is beautiful to behold. To recall, perhaps. To dream, all. Romeo sweeps her off her feet, literally, in a series of lifts that tip her, like love, upside down. And Juliet, too, sweeps Romeo off his feet, and shakes all memory of Rosaline from his mind. Their reluctance to part echoed by the violin.

With a two-tiered set that serves as an infamous balcony, a bridge, a loggia overlooking an open count, and the entrance to the family crypt, there is so much to see that it is impossible to take in the whole ensemble picture. And this pictorial framing, for me, intensifies the feeling of speeding headlong towards devastation. From the background colour of fruit being tossed in a brawl, to the exuberant rubbery tumble of carnival figures, led by Soloist Brodie James, in my own version of the ruin of impulsiveness that runs through “Romeo and Juliet,” I try, and fail, to take in all of the details. From neat formations that depict the rule of the family to the compositional asymmetry which signals Mercutio’s fate, Cranko’s choreography brings to life the numerous metaphors of time and fate woven in the source material. As the portents of death in Prokofiev’s score thematically build through repetition of melody and rhythm, under Conductor Jonathan Lo, to convey emotional intensity, Cranko interrupts the structure of formal groupings at the crescendo with an off-centre tragedy.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in “Romeo and Juliet” by John Cranko. Photograph by Jeff Busby

Senior artist Marcus Morelli’s Mercutio, seeing that one day can be the difference between life and death—“ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man”—gives one of the finer lengthy death dances. He straddles playful nonchalance and the realisation of what has transpired in a marvellous ‘all eyes on me’ before lights out finale. As music director and chief conductor Nicolette Fraillon describes, “the death of Mercutio is heartbreaking—you can hear his theme peter out as he dies, you can hear his heart slow and stop.”3

Things do not end in Friar Laurence’s garden of glorious fecundity and evenly spaced trees, but in the Capulet Family Crypt amidst a snare drum culmination and the tolling of the death knell that could be heard rumbling in the distance before Act I even began. Just as the themes are transfigured in the score, so too Romeo and Juliet upon the stage. Reshaped, in defiance of the stars.

“Eyes, look your last” for it may be another nineteen-year respite.

  1. Raymond Chapman, “Double Time in “Romeo and Juliet,‘” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Jul., 1949), 372–374, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3717655, accessed October 12, 2022
  2. William Watkiss Lloyd, “Essays on the life and plays of Shakespeare” (London: C. Whittingham, 1958), https://hdl.handle.net/2027/umn.319510022970636, accessed October 12, 2022.
  3. Nicolette Fraillon, in interview with Rose Mulready, “A Pas de Deux with Stalin,” The Australian Ballet Melbourne “Romeo and Juliet” program, 32