The Swedes take on an old classic and make it relevant.
Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo for the Royal Swedish Ballet, at The Kennedy Center for only four more shows, is a bold retelling of Shakespeare’s familiar tale of the star-crossed lovers. Kudos to the Swedes for bringing a provocative update to an old classic.
Indeed, this is not your grandmother’s Shakespeare.
This rendition dismisses classical Romeo and Juliet ballets seen over the years at The Kennedy Center. Rejecting the traditional Prokofiev score, Ek chose Tchaikovsky for his ballet, and last evening Eva Ollikainen conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in these sometimes lyrical, often powerful musical passages. Piano soloist Bengt-Ake Lundin was especially poignant in Tchaikovsky’s haunting Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 23.
In Ek’s adaptation, the tale bursts with unbridled passion and virtuosic dancing, yet more cinematic with its urban setting, moveable barricades, motorized Mopeds, and costumes straight out of Baz Luhmann’s 1996 film on Shakespeare’s famous play updated to the hip modern suburb of Verona.
Both of these works reach an audience geared for the fantastic, flash and wildly creative movement. In a word, last evening’s performance left us gasping, yet wanting more.
Grandma might also disapprove of Ek’s portrayal of a feminist Juliet, fiercely danced by Mariko Kida on opening night. But for this writer (and I suspect younger viewers), kudos to the Swedes for bringing a provocative take on a story told through the eyes of a woman – emphasize “Juliet” comes before “Romeo” in the title.
We see Ek’s choreography at its most caring in the character of Juliet. She dashes through her family parties, makes faces at her cousin, and dances like a young woman not afraid to show emotions. An especially loving scene takes place in the first act when Juliet seeks refuge under her nurse’s flowing dress. Guest artist Ana Laguna, a warm and sympathetic character, stole the show with her tenderness towards her young charge. By the second act we found her romping with Romeo’s buddies, obviously okay with the couple.
Meanwhile ballerina, Nadja Sellrup, put her own dynamic stamp on the role of the Mother who dominated the Capulet household. She flailed her arms at the thought of Juliet taking flight. She contracted a la Martha Graham when her stifling husband (Andrey Leonovitch) took off flying leaps leaving her alone to sulk. Was there a fling with the Prince? No doubt the cool presence and impeccable dancing of Andrey Leonovitch last evening would impress a woman of any age.
Why not strong women as the lead characters? Here is a country that gave us Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler, Nora Helmer from A Doll’s House, film actress Greta Garbo, and Ingrid Berman’s Ilsa Lund character in Casablanca.
“It’s time to turn the tables,” said the Swedish choreographer in a post-show discussion. “One of Shakespeare’s early drafts was actually called “Juliet and Romeo,” so you could say that we’re going back to the source.”
The source, of course, is the tragedy of the two lovers and Ek’s choreography captures their story. He created lively dances for Romeo (Antony Lomuljo for the opening) and, even more energetic choreography for friends Tybalt a fun-loving Dawid Kupinski and the sacrificial Mercutio, played by the incredible Jerome Marchand in a tutu. Oscar Salomonsson caught my attention as the unsettling Paris.
In closing, there’s one more nod to Set Designer Magdalena Aberg (also credited with costumes). She created the moveable walls that first became a cattle car (where Romeo hung out), then a Les Miserables barricade and so on. It served well for the ending where the trap door opened for Juliet and Romeo to live eternally. There’s a lasting image of mourners raising their legs upward to mimic the lovers in their deaths.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with one 25-minute intermission.
The Royal Swedish Ballet performs Juliet and Romeo through Saturday, June 4, 2016, at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available on toll free 800-444-5324, (202) 467-4600, or online.
Mats Ek’s success as a choreographer and director can be seen in the exhibition Mats Ek – A Dance Rebel on the Move for Forty Years at the Sweden House, which houses the Embassy of Sweden and the Embassy of Iceland – 2900 K Street, NW, in Washington, DC.. The free exhibit is collaboration with the Museum of Movement, Stockholm.