Katja Wünsche as Juliet and William Moore as Romeo in Zürich Ballet's “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Monika Rittershaus

What light (and darkness)

Zürich Ballet's “Romeo & Juliet”

Broadcast
Zürich Ballet: “Romeo and Juliet,” broadcast June 26, 2020
Words
Oksana Khadarina

Zürich Ballet’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” is a visually and emotionally gripping piece of dance-theater, a poignant dramatic vision of William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy, which was created for the company by its artistic director, Christian Spuck, in 2012.

The sheer theatricality of Spuck’s staging, the imaginative designs and attractive costumes, as well as the top-notch performances by the entire cast, make this “Romeo and Juliet” memorable in every way. The recording of this ballet was recently streamed on the company’s website as part of [email protected] series.

The first major ballet adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” to the music by Sergei Prokofiev premiered in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) 80 years ago, with the choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky. The Mariinsky Ballet still keeps this historic staging in its repertory. (You can catch the recording of this ballet, featuring the indelible performances of Diana Vishneva and Vladimir Shklyarov in the title roles, on Mariinsky.TV.)

Over the years, numerous dance-makers—most notably Maurice Béjart, Mats Ek, Mark Morris and Matthew Bourne—put their own (often radical) interpretive spins on the traditional staging, in some cases forgoing the famous Prokofiev’s score all together.

An avid storyteller in dance, Spuck, who was resident choreographer of the Stuttgart Ballet before taking the helm of Zürich Ballet, managed to do both in this production: to stay close to the traditional version of the ballet and to give the familiar story a contemporary edge, infusing the choreography with a modern flavor.

Katja Wünsche as Juliet and William Moore as Romeo in Zürich Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Monika Rittershaus

No moment is wasted in this “Romeo and Juliet.” Spuck moves the action onstage with a swift cinematic pace, while keeping the famous love story in a sharp focus. His choreography—deeply theatrical, evocative and emotionally charged—incorporates a broad stylistic range: here fluidity and grace of classical vocabulary are aptly mixed with gravity and angularity of modern dance idiom. And his spectacular sword-fighting sequences are worthy of Hollywood. Throughout the piece, the pantomime is clear, nuanced and potent: no gesture is muted or inaccurate; no glance is insincere. I admired the ways he uses stillness to create tension—the moments when the dancers suddenly freeze in time and space, creating effective tableaus to enhance the dramatic impact of a scene.

The ballet’s décor (by Christian Schmidt) is stark and minimal. The stage is a big open space shrouded in darkness, with a huge window in the background and a handful of simple black chairs and tables serving as props to convert the stage (with the help of the dancers) to various locales. A narrow footpath above the window, with metal ladders on both sides, functions as the balcony. And there is a magnificent crystal chandelier which descends from the ceiling in Act II to create an enormous ballroom; in Act III, this chandelier is lowered down to the floor to depict Juliet’s bedroom. Garlands of lights make a clever evocation of a bustling square and the multiple rows of candles in the final scene suggest the solemnity of a tomb.

Zürich Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet” with costumes by Emma Ryott. Photograph by Carlos Quezada

The somber formality of the stage decoration is in a sharp contrast with the royal opulence of the costumes for the ensemble. Emma Ryott designed magnificent gowns in sumptuous dark silks for the ladies and smart black waistcoats for the men, bringing a sense of grandeur and glamour to the stage. The dresses of Juliet, on the other hand, are rather simple and unassuming, in solid colors of lilac, red and white, emphasizing the main heroine’s purity and virtue.

With her long flaxen hair pulled back in a girlish fashion, a lithe Katja Wünsche was thoroughly convincing as Juliet. Her performance was shaded by wistful sadness; yet through her playing and acting you can feel her character’s inner-strength and confidence. From the moment she locked her eyes with Romeo’s at the Capulets’ ball to the ballet’s devastating finale, you knew that her love for Romeo (William Moore) was real. In her perceptive portrayal, Wünsche was terrific in showing Juliet’s inner growth from an innocent young girl to a woman in love to an indomitable rebel.

With a perfect physique and movie-star looks, William Moore made a swoon-worthy Romeo. His dancing and his acting were electrifying: in his performance, he projected an intense physical magnetism that was irresistible. His love for Juliet felt rapt and earnest; the two lovers growing affection was beautifully translated through their glances, touches and their dancing (through a multitude of dizzying spins, ardent holds and euphoric lifts that Spucks’ choreography supplied in abundance)—as a result, their love story ultimately acquired that burning urgency that the love between Romeo and Juliet is all about.

Daniel Mulligan as Mercutio and Tigran Mkrtchyan as Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Monika Rittershaus

The superb Tigran Mkrtchyan was a self-possessed and arrogant Tybalt—a complete opposite to the pesky and mischievous presence of Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Daniel Mulligan). In the role of Paris, Juliet’s persistent suitor, Jan Casier was fittingly repellent in his looks and manners; and the spunky and vivacious Elena Vostrotina made a wonderful turn as Juliet’s nurse, who, in this production, looks more like a young governess than an old nanny.

The role of Friar Lorenzo (the excellent Filipe Portugal) is central in this staging. He is the one who, in the beginning of the ballet, sets the whole story in motion by drawing with a white chalk the dividing line in the middle of the stage that (literally and metaphorically) separates the two warring clans of the Montagues and Capulets. As the story unfolds, Lorenzo, clad in black and wearing dark glasses, lurks about the stage with an enigmatic, even sinister, look. No doubt, he is a caring soul; yet his duets with Juliet seemed rather strange, even unbecoming—a few false notes in the otherwise solid production.

The buoyant ensemble choreography deserves a special mention here, particularly a finely choreographed Dance of the Knights in Act II. It was both thrilling and terrifying to watch a posh-looking crowd of the Capulets clan, moving as if in a military parade, with swords ablaze, slowly but steadily spinning a vortex of impending doom as Prokofiev’s music swelled to a fervent pitch—an apt evocation of a deadly storm gathering its force before a devastating landfall.

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