Balletboyz's Romeo and Juliet film takes star-cross'd lovers to the street

Shot on location with lashings of fighting and flirting, Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words is a vibrant, up-close take on one of the Royal Ballet’s best-loved gems

It’s been an ongoing quandary: how do you put dance on screen? Pure dance is a gloriously visual medium, but so often it doesn’t seem to translate from the stage. Pointing a camera at a proscenium arch yields disappointing results; some say the energy of performance can’t be captured, or maybe ballet feels too artificial compared with the realism we’re used to on film.

Thankfully, dancers-turned-directors Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, AKA the BalletBoyz, stubbornly refuse to concede to that conclusion. They have form with insightful behind-the-scenes documentaries, demystifying pre-performance videos, and their first dance feature, made in 2016, Young Men, which was inspired by the soldiers of the first world war.

Their latest project is a successful attempt to put a ballet on screen on its own terms. Kenneth MacMillan’s 1964 Romeo and Juliet is one of the gems in the rep of the Royal Ballet (Nunn and Trevitt’s alma mater) and the key to their film version, Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words, is that it doesn’t take place on an opera house stage, but is shot on location – in Etyek, Hungary, a passable stand-in for Verona.

The film opens with an abundance of street life, chickens, dogs, harlots (only one dodgy wig; the rest look like real people), lads joshing, fighting and flirting. And dancing, of course. There’s joy in seeing the riches of the Royal Opera House costume department up close, a lush saturation of ochre, tangerine, russet and olive. And Trevitt’s dynamic cinematography catches the bustle, the jostling, the connections between characters, never stuck on a wide shot. We don’t see every step from every dancer, but it’s all in the service of the plot. Same with the cuts the directors have made, from 135 minutes to 90, keeping the story moving, almost always for the best.

A significant part of the film’s success is down to Prokofiev’s music. So vibrant, so ominous, so sublime, with such clear storytelling you’ll come away thinking this is the best score in ballet. But the main reason it works is the casting. As it happens, this is not the only feature film Royal Ballet principal Francesca Hayward stars in this December. She’s playing Victoria in the Cats musical, a movie with a somewhat higher profile and promo budget than this one. It also has a lot more CGI, whereas all Hayward has here is her dancing body and her subtly expressive face.

Convincing as a ballet and as a drama … Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words.
Convincing as a ballet and as a drama … Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words. Photograph: Balletboyz

Having a beautiful face certainly makes a difference on the big screen, but it’s what she does with it that counts. It’s bewitching to watch Juliet’s thoughts play out – the first awakening to her own desirability when Paris is presented to her; the reckoning perched on the edge of her bed when her disastrous plan forms. And each step she dances is the extension of those thoughts, decisions and hormonally charged feelings.

Hayward’s Romeo, William Bracewell, is perfectly cast, too. Unlike the confident, studly Tybalt (Matthew Ball), Bracewell’s Romeo is just a boy who can’t quite believe his luck. The romance is heady (the kiss where she rises on to her tiptoes: swoon), the chemistry is palpable, the dancing dreamy as Bracewell glides through silky pirouettes a la seconde.

Marcelino Sambé is an exuberant Mercutio at his usual high speed, and the camera races through the streets, blurring the action in a breathless, mud-smeared swordfight in the rain (not enough fake blood, but otherwise a highlight). It’s exciting, romantic, tragic, convincing as a ballet and as a drama. In a pre-screening talk, Nunn said they were having trouble selling the idea to distributors because when it comes to dance on screen, all cinema bosses know about is live relays. Well, this is way better than that.

• Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words is screened at Sadler’s Wells, London, on 9 December, and in Curzon cinemas on 16 December. It will be screened on BBC television over Christmas.

Contributor

Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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