Romeo and Juliet
HK Cultural Centre Grand Theatre
Reviewed: July 19
Just 4½ months after American Ballet Theatre brought Kenneth MacMillan's masterly production of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet to Hong Kong, along comes Geneva Ballet with a version by Swiss-born choreographer Joëlle Bouvier.
Comparisons may be odious (or odorous, as Shakespeare quips in Much Ado About Nothing) but under these circumstances it's hard not to make them. Yes, there are major differences between the two productions - the MacMillan is a full-scale theatrical piece danced to the complete score which follows the play closely and employs classical ballet technique, while Bouvier pares down the story, jettisoning many of the characters, to offer a timeless tale of two people falling in love despite social barriers. Her choreography is contemporary and is set to extracts of music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet suites.
The concept is fine; the execution less satisfying. Bouvier is clearly a talented choreographer and produces some striking images - two that stand out are Juliet carried into the ball seated astride on Tybalt's shoulder and her scrambling up Romeo's body when she tries to prevent him leaving Verona. The company dances with energy and there is much demanding double work for all the dancers, not just the lovers.
However, while Bouvier's choreography is not unmusical, it is infinitely less expressive of Prokofiev's music than MacMillan's, and moments of direct comparison like the balcony scene duet are not to her advantage. Leonard Bernstein's suite from West Side Story might have suited her style better.
Also, pared down or not, the plot still needs to be comprehensible - here, anyone unfamiliar with the play would not have had a clue what was going on. Key dramatic moments are fluffed - the lovers' first meeting goes almost unnoticed, Romeo is not present at Mercutio's death and neither of the lovers are seen to commit suicide at the end. Instead they die for no clear reason.
The manipulation of Juliet's supposedly lifeless body by Romeo at the end is familiar from other productions and Bouvier has added an opening sequence where the same is done by the crowd with the bodies of both lovers.
Unfortunately, the dancers can clearly be seen moving of their own volition so that they appear to be drugged rather than dead. And why suggest that they are merely puppets? On the contrary, the whole point is that they rebel against what society expects.
An intended coup de théâtre where Juliet walks onto the stage shrouded in a white sheet is unintentionally comic. Certainly, there is no other comedy - the piece is unrelievedly dark throughout, figuratively and, in the case of the lighting design, literally. This lack of contrast becomes wearing - even the love duets are strangely joyless. The fight scenes are so brutal that several audience members left.
There were outstanding performances from Vladimir Ippolitov as Mercutio and Loris Bonani as Tybalt. In the title roles, Nathanaël Marie and Sarawanee Tanatanit danced well but failed to bring the characters to life.