The problem with Romeo and Juliet for any ballet company is that Sergei Prokofiev’s score is so masterful, so all-consuming an artistic expression, it always feels in danger of overshadowing the dance. Many choreographers over the years have attempted to combat this dilemma, or rise to its challenge, but only a handful succeeded; English choreographer John Cranko, whose version premiered in 1962 for the Stuttgart Ballet, is one of the successes.
Australian Ballet have a long history with the production, having premiered it here in 1974. It has been 19 years since we last saw it, with a young Steven Heathcote dancing the role of Romeo and Simone Goldsmith as Juliet. This very familiarity makes the work a kind of litmus test not only for the principal dancers but the company as a whole – a measure of its general health.
For a production that turns 60 this year, Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet has a lot of life in it, even if some of his choices feel slightly coy by modern standards. It is dramatically lucid to the point of bluntness – the establishment of the family feud at the heart of the story is powerfully articulated in the opening scene – and it proceeds with a haunting inevitability. The result is emotionally compelling and psychologically taut. There is a great deal of colour and contrast in it, as well as moments of humour and levity.
It isn’t perfect, however. For one thing, the choreography isn’t ever as dangerous as it could be. Prokofiev’s score throbs with a barely contained menace, a level of aggression that constantly threatens to explode in violence, but Cranko pulls his punches somewhat. When Tybalt slaps Romeo with a glove, it feels like a gentlemen’s quarrel rather than the invitation to death it really is. When the Montague boys employ grand jetés, it isn’t to intimidate the Capulets but simply to amuse each other. The choreography, for the men in particular, is so lyrical it borders on the fey.
Callum Linnane, making his debut as Romeo, struggles initially with this lightness of touch. His early scenes seem tentative, and he is almost eclipsed by the admittedly superb Brett Chynoweth as his bestie, Mercutio. But things improve markedly once he spies his Juliet (Sharni Spencer) at the Capulet ball, in a scene of exquisite tension and coiled desire. Linnane is a dancer who responds best to narrative stimuli, to a dramatic goal, and as soon as he has his Juliet he transforms into the quintessential Byronic lover, swooning and supplicant.
Spencer, in a role that has cemented many prima ballerinas’ careers, is sublime as the initially flighty but increasingly ennobled tragic heroine. From her first moments with Terese Power’s earthy and credible Nurse, Spencer is a knockout, brimming with vitality but also achingly imperilled. In the crucial pas de deux, she and Linnane are heartbreakingly good; the balcony scene is an eruption of high romantic longing, and the bedroom scene – one of Shakespeare’s most glorious achievements – is suitably desperate and sad, even without the presentiments of death.
Several dancers shine in solos, not least of all Chynoweth’s mercurial Mercutio, whose precision matches his panache. Cranko plays up the humour a little too much in the death scene, but Chynoweth milks it for all the pathos he can muster. Adam Bull is very strong as a choleric Tybalt; with his recent work in Wayne McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, he is building rather a fine gallery of bastards. And Steven Heathcote and Amy Harris make a commanding Lord and Lady Capulet – parts Shakespeare deliberately flattened, as if they were written by the young lovers themselves.
Cranko gives the corps plenty to do too, with some extended and highly entertaining divertissements that have very little to do with Shakespeare but demonstrate the depth of talent in the company’s ranks. Some nifty acrobatics enliven the market scenes, and there is a lovely female group dance with lilies near the end that exploits dramatic irony beautifully. Everyone looks smashing in Jürgen Rose’s original Renaissance costumes, with their rich, warm colours and bold outlines.
As for the problem of the primacy of Prokofiev’s score, Orchestra Victoria – under the wonderfully assured baton of conductor Jonathan Lo – certainly give the dancers a run for their money. From the crescendos and decrescendos of those sweeping strings and the crashing of the timpani that announce the Capulets, to the shimmering loveliness of the woodwinds that accompany Juliet, the orchestra play with such suppleness and control, you almost will the curtain to stay down just so you can listen harder. Cranko is sensible enough to work with rather than against this rapturous music, and the result is another triumph for Australian Ballet, clearly at the height of their considerable powers.