Romeo & Juliet review – Sergei Polunin in swashbuckling form

This vehicle for Ukrainian ballet star Sergei Polunin, created by his former Royal Ballet colleague Johan Kobborg was originally made for the Arena di Verona, a venue that holds 15,000 people, and you have to view it in that light: given to a lot of leaping and bouts of overblown drama in an attempt to reach the back rows, with Canadian sculptor David Umemoto’s monolithic set providing height and different levels for the action.

It’s a brave move to bring it to London for a one-off performance. The Royal Ballet regularly performs Kenneth MacMillan’s near-perfect version of Romeo and Juliet and English National Ballet has Nureyev’s production. But such is the draw of Polunin, a dancer as well known for his rebel image and off-stage exploits as for his precocious talent.

Alina Cojocaru’s Juliet.
Doing twice the work … Alina Cojocaru’s Juliet. Photograph: Ian Gavan

The result doesn’t touch those well-known versions. Kobborg’s choreography plays to Polunin’s strengths, with long combinations of flying jumps and multiple pirouettes, Polunin’s ease of elevation on display (although Kobborg also finds some unpredictable turns of phrase, especially in the ensemble work). The show is slimmed down to 90 minutes, so it’s out with the villager filler to focus on the prime protagonists, but they inevitably strip out some character-building, shape and depth as well. Cuts are made to Prokofiev’s score, in sometimes disjointed fashion, but occasionally to interesting effect: an apocalyptic crescendo is employed as a motif, as in one short but chilling scene where Juliet is forcibly turned towards Paris, her fate. In fact, Juliet (the divine Alina Cojocaru) is the subject of a few sinister moments, her doomed destiny in the air.

Cojocaru brings the usual effortlessness to her dancing. She’s an innocent Juliet, trying to fathom the anxiety and excitement of her unfamiliar feelings. Cojocaru has to do twice the work, since Polunin’s never been the most subtle or complex of actors, the character separated from the dancer, but it’s enjoyable to watch him in a fierce sword fight with Tybalt (Nikolas Gaifullin). After dispatching his rival, he mercilessly tosses his sword on the corpse, only to turn round and see Juliet, and it suddenly hits him what he’s done; this is a show with some strong moments, but it’s not a ballet for the ages.

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