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June 2012

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Juilliard Dance

Published: June 25, 2012
Category: review

Precision vs. Passion in Romeo and Juliet

By Rachel Straus

BERLIN — John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet moves from strength to strength, which is why it has been performed continuously since its world premiere in 1962. Arguably the finest ballet version of the Bard’s tale, it was recently performed by Staatsballett Berlin before a packed house at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on June 15.

The earliest Romeo and Juilet ballets date to 18th-century Italy. In the 20th century, Leonid Lavrovsky, Frederick Ashton, Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, Choo San Goh, Mark Morris, among many others, have created notable versions using Prokofiev’s landmark score. When Cranko revised and expanded his 1958 Romeo and Juliet for Stuttgart Ballet in 1962, the story of two houses divided must have resonated with German audiences. The Berlin Wall had just been erected. At the Deutsche Oper performance, there were ten minutes’ worth of curtain calls.

Cranko, who was born in South Africa, rose to prominence as a dancer and choreographer in London before making Germany his base in 1961. When he died, suddenly, in 1973 at the age of 45, the dance world lost one of its master craftsmen.

His brilliance lies in the choreographic leitmotifs he creates for his characters. Like Prokofiev’s score, which uses recurring light and dark melodies to reflect the sweet pleasures and violent perils of Shakespeare’s tale, Cranko shapes specific steps to illustrate and develop the protagonists’ feelings. For example, Juliet’s innocent exuberance and willful recklessness is illustrated by bourrées, the tiny, quick gliding steps that female dancers perform on the tips of their pointe shoes. In Act I, Juliet (Elisa Carrillo Cabrera) bourrées backwards, as though exhaling with pure pleasure, after receiving her first kiss from Romeo (Mikhail Kaniskin). In Act III, Cabrera bourrées forward while dipping frantically backwards into Kaniskin’s arms. The couple’s innocent passion is no more. With blood on their hands, they dance as though their limbs are being torn apart.

Cranko’s choreographic acuity is also apparent in the way he has his characters die. When Mercutio (Alexej Orienco, making a wonderful debut in the role) is slain by Tybalt (Arshak Ghalumyan), he dies as lightheartedly as he lived: He plays the lute, kisses the female gypsies, and laughs before his lights go out. This death as encapsulation of life is the smartest kind of shorthand. It’s what made Cranko beloved to audiences. The company that emerged after he was named ballet director for the City of Stuttgart in 1961 became known as the Stuttgart Ballet miracle.

Romeo and Juliet’s sparely elegant and seamlessly shifting set design is ideally suited to Cranko’s economical approach. Originally conceived by Jürgen Rose, this 2012 reinterpretation by Thomas Mika is atmospherically somber. Portico arches feature a walkway above the stage, which serves not only as Juliet’s balcony, but also the town plaza’s terrace, a bridge for warring swordsmen, and a vault opening, where Juliet’s body is laid to rest. Yet unlike some other Romeo and Juliet ballets, which make small-town Verona look like a Cecil de Mille film version of Rome, Mika’s brown and black set underscore the starkness of the tale. The young die; their golden futures are blackened by fear and loathing.

The extensive use of the corps makes the three-hour production fly by. While Romeo and Juliet’s pas de deux become increasingly complex and their lifts soar higher, the chorus does not stand on the sidelines. Instead, its members are constantly on the move. Better yet, the female dancers are not on pointe. The ethereal quality produced by pointe shoes is reserved for Juliet and her golden maidens. In soft shoes, the women in the village scenes are given hearty prancing steps and juicy jumps to show off their earthiness. They also get involved in the male dancers’ swordfights. As the brawl intensifies, the women push and claw at each other. Female ballet dancers getting down and dirty? It’s welcome, and true to life: Competition among female corps dancers is fierce.

As for Staatsballett principals Kaniskin and Cabrera, they are marvelous technicians. Cabrera excels in the second and third acts, projecting rage and pathos. But her Act I Juliet was disappointing and a bit dispassionate. When she first danced with Kaniskin, she often was looking elsewhere. Kaniskin is the senior dancer of the two and the more cohesive actor. Under Juliet’s gaze in Act I, he danced ballet’s most complex jumps with a youthful brio. His presence visibly changed after he killed. His limbs looked heavier; his steps faltered. As to the necessary frisson between Kaniskin and Cabrera, it was not there. Perhaps they needed more rehearsal time.

On the other hand, this is a company that dances with pitch-perfect precision. Guillermo Garcia-Calvo’s conducting was fast and proficient. Like clockwork the ballet ended, as published on the company website, exactly at the three-hour mark. Similarly, the troupe’s performance of Cranko’s masterwork was marvelously exact, but needed more risk taking and passion — the essence of Romeo and Juliet.

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