SIR FRED has left his Romeo and Juliet in hands safe and sure.
The great British choreographer and former Royal Ballet director wanted his take on Shakespeare’s tragedy to be transmitted to the world by Denmark’s ballet pride, Peter Schaufuss.
How wise that departing judgment. Under Schaufuss’ handpicked cast and his dramatic and sensitive interpretation – including taking the role of Friar Laurence himself – Ashton’s vision lies before us in The Peter Schaufuss Ballet’s debut season at The Dome.
And so worthy are his principal artistic selections — ex Royal and Birmingham Royal Ballet member Stefan Wise as Romeo; the Japanese dancer Megumi Oki, Stuttgart-trained under John Cranko and formerly with the Dresden State Opera and Ballet, as Juliet; and set and lighting designer Luciano Melini. Both dancers come from companies steeped in this ballet as created by their artistic directors.
Ashton’s work has exceptional and wholly characteristic grace, lyricism, sensitivity, with its emotional focus on the lovers in their privacy, to the dramatic structural exclusion of the massed street scenes which in other versions amplify the Montague-Capulet feuding — staging which almost simultaneously inspired West Side Story.
These add scale and excitement to the productions more familiar to us, and in these the deaths of rival players Mercutio and Tybalt matter to us more.
Ashton’s insight and concern for male-female relationships takes us even more deeply inside the hearts of the two main characters in just his “Ballet in 11 scenes with prologue, inspired by William Shalespeare’s play”.
The lovers’ story goes all so horribly wrong and, while we lose Mercutio and Tybalt along the way, and Paris joins the pile for being merely in the wrong place and the wrong time, Ashton uses these as incidentals and he makes the central tragedy all the more unbearable.
So does Shaufuss, whose tenderness and perception as Friar Lawrence, whose plan for the freedom of both lovers apparently misfires so terribly, provides an extra acting highlight.
So do Wise and Oki, the diminutive latter barely reaching his shoulder in height, whose intimacy, through the channel of this company, Ashton allows us to share in duets which took this opening-night Brighton audience almost into trance — so subdued was their response during the performance to dancing that might have brought outbursts of rapture to an audience prepared for the content.
The rarity of seeing Ashton’s Romeo & Juliet explains some of that audience quietness.
This first Schaufuss Ballet Christmas residency has provided us with this precious experience, and here’s to their return next year.
The Royal Danish Ballet had given Ashton the chance his own Royal Ballet had denied him and in the 1955 Copenhagen premier, Schaufuss’ parents had danced Juliet and Mercutio. Ashton was working blind but white hot.
The Bolshoi’s inaugural version to Prokofiev’s new score hit these shores the following year, and that of Kenneth MacMillan – the choreography we British are most familiar with – lay 10 years hence.
So, as Haydn once said after composing in the isolation of Esterhazy Palace, “I (Ashton) had to be original.”
Wise and Oki move magnetically, to each other, and also magnetise us.
Wise has such implicit strength and with that necessary degree of vulnerability.
Oki hits that combination of adolescent vivacity and innocence moving to an awakening ardour, seen when, enchantingly definite, she twice refuses to allow Romeo to dress and depart from Verona. Her scene of desperate vexation over her arranged betrothal to Paris is another high-spot.
All this we see against Melini’s combination of a single set of steps, almost the full stage width, seen against ever changing light, colour and background.
That colour often matches those of the dancers, thus integrating the whole, lending camouflage in half-light, and projected monochrome photography cleverly provides changes of scene and ground texture.
Schaufuss slips in one moment for conjecture, maybe.
After dispensing Juliet with her potion and sending her forth, as he exits, on the other half of the stage he removes the white top-spread from the lovers’ bed, as would a stage assistant.
It transforms the bed into a tomb. His hand in their fate?
Review by Richard Amey