“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” So perfect is Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography in the Balcony Scene of Romeo and Juliet that one can almost hear Shakespeare’s lines being spoken by the star-cross'd lovers over Prokofiev’s sumptuous score. Above soaring violins, in a series of stirring lifts, Juliet is literally turned head over heels in love, Romeo raising her high, “a winged messenger of heaven”.

Matthew Ball (Romeo) and Lauren Cuthbertson (Juliet) © ROH | Helen Maybanks
Matthew Ball (Romeo) and Lauren Cuthbertson (Juliet)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

MacMillan’s masterpiece is close to clocking up 500 performances at The Royal Ballet since its 1965 premiere when Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev famously took 43 curtain calls from an audience reluctant to let them go. Every era has its favourite couple – Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope will always be special for me – and the opening night of this season’s run saw a new pairing: Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Ball.

Cuthbertson, heir to Bussell’s “English rose” status within the company, dances a heartfelt Juliet, embodying The Bard’s heroine from her expressive eyes to the tips of her pointe shoes. Her introduction is full of childish play and gossamer bourrés until she catches her first sight of Romeo at the Capulets’ ball where she is immediately transfixed by curiosity. When Matthew Ball’s puckish Romeo catches her by the wrist under her balcony and they walk downstage, clasping hands, she daren’t even look him in the face initially; one can feel the heat of her blush. Weightless in duet, she melts in hold. One watches her Juliet grow in confidence into the one making the crucial decisions. Her Act 3 was most moving. In the bedroom pas de deux, you watch it dawn on Juliet’s face that this first night together with Romeo will also be their last; she is like a butterfly whose wings have been torn.

Lauren Cuthbertson (Juliet) © ROH | Helen Maybanks
Lauren Cuthbertson (Juliet)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

Ball, fresh from his success this winter dancing the swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, is a dashing Romeo. He impresses with his series of expansive turns, arabesques, then grands jetés in the Balcony Scene, but there was plenty of laddish humour too, forming a cheeky trio with Valentino Zucchetti’s Mercutio and James Hay’s Benvolio. The finale in the Capulet tomb where Romeo dances with Juliet’s lifeless body – like the rag-doll she toys with in her entrance scene – was most moving, Juliet’s “silent scream” when she cradles him tearing the heart.

Gary Avis is a debonair, moustachioed Tybalt, looking like Errol Flynn and just as swashbuckling in the thrilling fight choreography. His Tybalt is a charmer, offering Lady Capulet a rose, making one wonder about the real nature of their relationship. He is “more sinned against than sinning”, a man simply goaded too far and provoked into a scrap, horrified when Mercutio backs into his rapier. Elizabeth McGorian’s big moment as Lady Capulet, wailing over Tybalt’s corpse, hits the mark, and Marcelino Sambé (who debuts as Romeo later in the run) exploded in the Mandolin dance.

Matthew Ball (Romeo) and Lauren Cuthbertson (Juliet) © ROH | Helen Maybanks
Matthew Ball (Romeo) and Lauren Cuthbertson (Juliet)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

To match the grandeur of Nicholas Georgiadis’ set, MacMillan’s crowd scenes in fair Verona teem with detail. There was occasional loss of synchronicity in the street scenes but the puff-chested Dance of the Knights made an impact and tension simmered nicely during the Gavotte.

The playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, urgently paced under The Royal Ballet’s music director Koen Kessels, was often terrific, with satin strings, piquant woodwinds – particularly the saxophone smokiness in Friar Laurence’s cell – and brass snarling like Shakespeare’s warring families. From curtain up to Juliet’s “happy dagger”, a tremendous performance to kick off this lengthy run of MacMillan’s classic.


****1