French choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet as presented by Leeds-based touring company Northern Ballet, transplants Shakespeare’s oft-told tale of star-crossed lovers in a minimalistic, dystopian dreamspace saturated by a binary of black and white.
Even for those without much knowledge of ballet or Shakespeare’s tragedy, the production’s visual elements, along with Sergei Prokofiev’s sweeping score, at turns plaintive and playful, make it an entrancing spectacle. Against the backdrop of set designer Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s sleek, mobile, overlapping walls, the Montagues and Capulets – respectively bedecked by Jérôme Kaplan in simple, snowy armour-inspired outfits and inky, flowing garb – move about the stage in lyrical enmity. Juliet (Martha Leebolt) and her allies, such as her Nurse (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) and Friar Laurence (Isaac Lee-Baker), are smartly distinguished from the belligerent masses by their grey-hued and dual-toned ensembles. The nuanced luminescence of Dominique Drillot’s lighting design – warm, rosy tones for the Capulets’ ball, whimsical, cloudy blues for the balcony scene, and sparse spotlights for the lovers’ suicides – likewise magnify the ballet’s drama.
Of course, it is Maillot’s choreography that lies at the heart of the production. Among the ballet’s most salient moments is the ball, which opens with dancers in a synchronised line formation and unfolds into an array of partner dances and solos as Romeo’s (Giuliano Contadini) fateful encounter with Juliet draws near, and he overcomes his unrequited feelings for Rosaline (Abigail Prudames).
Another is the paramours’ pas de deux during the balcony scene. It is during the latter scene, achieved with Leebolt standing on a tilted beam and working her way down to the floor to her puppy-eyed partner, that she and Contadini most strongly convey their adolescent characters’ newfound passion. Contadini, for instance, tenderly caresses Leebolt’s foot as she reclines. His embodiment of passion is all the more poignant when compared to his portrayal of languid melancholy during his first moments onstage, when he moves about with black cloth draped over his face.
In contrast to its triumphs, the production’s setbacks are minor. Though it is easy to follow the plot of the story based on the ballet’s staging – and fun to mentally match the dialogue to what unfolds through dance – it is sometimes difficult to discern characters’ identities when dancers initially appear onstage. For example, when Juliet first interacts with her Nurse, reacting to the news that Count Paris (Joseph Taylor) asked to marry her, some of Leebolt’s actions seem coyer than Brooks-Daw’s, such as Leebolt opening her robe to reveal her chest. Juliet may be coming of age, but the Nurse, at least in Shakespeare’s play, is the bawdier character. On the other hand, it is clear to identify the additional coarse, comic characters in the tragedy – Romeo’s rambunctious wingmen Mercutio and Benvolio, who are brought to life with vigour by Matthew Koon and Sean Bates.
Though the ballet reaches the teary-eyed conclusion dictated by its source material, the journey to tragedy is one of tender beauty that only dance can convey.