We think of Romeo and Juliet as a story about love, but really it’s about death. Ten minutes into Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet there’s already a pile of bodies on the stage, but despite the brutality, we are shown that life can be transcendent.
Numerous dancers make their debuts in the leading roles this season but for opening night, Lauren Cuthbertson is a masterful Juliet, partnered by the young principal Matthew Ball, fresh from a dangerously charismatic turn as the Stranger in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. There’s a decade between the two, but they are totally convincing and it is a production and partnership with some real highs.
This Juliet is a mere child, flinging herself into grand jetés with the unselfconsciousness of a girl not yet taught to be demure. Ball’s Romeo is one of the lads, caught up in exceptional circumstances. When the pair meet, their reactions are spontaneous. At one point Ball goes as if to kiss Cuthbertson’s neck and she laughs, caught off-guard. When he lifts her above his head she looks surprised to find herself there, amazed by these heights she hasn’t felt before. And that first kiss, wow. Seriously swoonsome.
Ball’s partnering is strong (there has to be much trust when you’re tossing Juliet’s limp body in the air), even if there’s still a little to finesse in the details of his dancing. Where Ball’s emotions come layered on top of his movement, Cuthbertson’s are expressed within. It helps that MacMillan builds so much character into the choreography – such as Juliet’s tiny, shy bourrées as she slips out of Paris’s grasp.
Prokofiev’s rich and stirring score is one of ballet’s greats, the choreography in conversation with its intricate rhythms as well as sweeping drama. Sometimes MacMillan leaves the music to speak: for the first four bars of the balcony scene the young lovers simply stand staring at each other; or there is Juliet sitting alone, frozen on her bed, as she searches her mind for a way out.
Nicholas Georgiadis’s designs are as sumptuous and painterly as ever. There’s a good supporting cast: Gary Avis plays Tybalt drunk on his own self-importance; Valentino Zucchetti’s Mercutio has an impressively nonchalant way with a sword. This is a youthful, passionate, enthralling Romeo and Juliet.
At the Royal Opera House, London, until 11 June