Review: Hong Kong Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet – dancing dazzles

Two impressive casts, an original twist and a magnificent score performed live overcame some plodding choreography in a production that’s all about theatre

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 November, 2015, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 November, 2015, 2:00pm

Hong Kong Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet returned to the repertoire for the first time since 2009, enabling audiences to reassess the production and a new generation of dancers to tackle the leading roles.

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This 1967 version by the late Dutch choreographer Rudi van Dantzig is an entertaining, accessible production with a strong sense of theatre. The high point is the portrayal of Tybalt and Mercutio – van Dantzig is so taken with these characters he even brings them back after death – and the Act 2 duel scenes have never been done better. The narrative has a wealth of dramatic detail and nuance, with many inventive touches – the interplay among servants preparing for the Capulet ball, the hinted sexual relationship between Lady Capulet and Tybalt, the suffering of a woman left destitute when her husband becomes collateral damage in the Montague/Capulet feud.

In an original twist, Van Dantzig opts to focus on the havoc wrought by the vendetta and the need to renounce violence and seek reconciliation. While this is a powerful theme (sadly, one more relevant than ever these days), the problem is that it is not the theme of either Shakespeare’s play or Prokofiev’s score. It’s the lovers who should be the heart of the story and the production’s failing is that they are not. Compared to the brilliantly imagined scenes for the male dancers, the love duets fall flat – as the music soars, the choreography plods. The iconic pas de deux in the tomb where Romeo dances with Juliet’s dead body is slashed to a single lift and the ballet ends, not on the bodies of the lovers but on the ghosts of Tybalt and Mercutio clasping hands.

All the more credit, then, to the first cast of Wei Wei and Liu Miao-miao for transcending the choreography with some ravishing dancing – swift, fluid and musical. Liu was radiant in her debut as a gentle, moving Juliet, while Wei has the happy gift of always making you believe he’s in love with his ballerina. The least experienced couple, Shen Jie and Dong Ruixue – both making their debuts – also shone. Their youth and intense rapport made them utterly convincing, with Shen’s ardent Romeo conveying his passion for Dong’s lyrical Juliet through every line of his body. Liu Yu-yao was a revelation when she first danced Juliet six years ago. This time she gave a good performance but the magic was missing, perhaps due to the lack of chemistry with her Romeo, a valiant but miscast Li Jia-bo.

The company and guest répetiteur André Lewis deserve praise for fielding two such impressive casts in the supporting roles. There was dazzling dancing from the company’s men. Both Tybalts – the sneering, silkily feline Li Lin and the ferocious, snarling Lucas Jerkander – were outstanding. Also impressive were the two Mercutios – Shen displayed immaculate dancing and vivid acting while Xia Jun did well in his first big dramatic role and produced some thrilling virtuosity. On the distaff side, guest artist Elizabeth Ferrell was funny and touching as the Nurse and there were commanding Lady Capulets from Jin Yao and Yui Sugawara.

It was a pleasure to have the magnificent score performed live, with guest conductor Gerry Cornelius drawing good work from the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

Hong Kong Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, November 21-22