Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is a masterpiece – one of the great ballet scores of the last century, and arguably one of the best in ballet history. And to this immense achievement two choreographic stagings from the 1960s have stood the test of time: John Cranko’s 1962 ballet, and Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 rendition.

Callum Linnane and Sharni Spencer
© Daniel Boud

The Australian Ballet has a long history with the Cranko version, which it premiered in 1974. It was last staged almost twenty years ago, when a young Stephen Heathcote and Simone Goldsmith headlined as the star-crossed lovers. With a sense of the cycles of history, a new generation of dancers try on Romeo and Juliet for size this season, with Heathcote – now an AB Ballet Master – presiding over the stage as Lord Capulet.

Callum Linnane and Adam Bull
© Daniel Boud

Given the masterful score and choreography, Romeo and Juliet is an important indicator of the company’s strength. This is especially the case since Cranko’s ballet demands excellent ensemble work. Whilst the MacMillan choreography draws a lot of vitality and beauty from its leads (the balcony scene is one of the seminal pas de deux of the 20th century), Cranko chooses to take more of a bird’s eye view, contextualising the lovers within a greater feud that has poisoned all of Veronese society. To drive the narrative, Cranko’s storytelling calls for high artistry amongst all dancers – from the lords and ladies in the famous Dance of the Knights, to the peasants in the town square pelting each other with fruit, to the jesters and loose-haired town girls. They all have allegiances to declare and important parts to play in Cranko’s feuding Verona, a crucible of colourful, hot-blooded, complexity stretched to breaking point. The lifeblood of Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet is the ensemble, and without them the lovers’ doomed romance makes little sense. And happily, the AB delivered. This is a stunning production for which the company, at all levels, should be immensely proud.

Callum Linnane and Sharni Spencer
© Daniel Boud

Callum Linnane and Sharni Spencer danced Romeo and Juliet. Linnane’s stage presence has always had the undercurrents of a tortured soul, even in his “happy” roles, so as the ballet progressed he grew naturally into Romeo’s angst and desperation. Spencer was wonderfully cast as Juliet. Her movement quality has always had a uniquely light delicacy, perfect for a character in the first blooms of beauty. She was luminous as a Juliet who is forced by circumstance to mature from lovely child to tragic heroine. Despite a few initial slips, both dancers were heartrending in the crucial pas de deux. The balcony scene was lyrical and airborne, full of high lifts and ecstatic flowing lines; and the bedroom scene brimming with love and despair.

Brett Chynoweth was wonderful as Mercutio, to the point of almost upstaging Romeo in the opening scenes. In recent years Chynoweth has added a growing artistic depth and maturity to his fleet-footed precision and technical ease, making him masterful in almost every production I’ve seen him dance in lately. Cameron Holmes rounded out the Montague trio as Benvolio, compelling and technically assured in all his scenes.

Sharni Spencer and Amy Harris
© Daniel Boud

Adam Bull was a haughty, menacing delight as Tybalt. I didn’t think it was possible to make the usual dancer’s aristocrat posture even more elevated, especially on a princely danseur noble type like Bull, but somehow he did it, even whilst flashing his rapier in a breathlessly fast duel-to-the-death. His Tybalt gives new meaning to turning up one’s nose.

Rounding out the cast was Nathan Brook as an elegant and intriguingly sympathetic Paris. Joshua Consandine (wonderful to see on stage in a post-retirement cameo like Heathcote) was suitably ascetic as Friar Laurence, and Olga Tamara beguiling as Juliet’s nurse. The wonderful Amy Harris brought depth and emotion to Lady Capulet, as she does to all her roles, making her few scenes count.

Romeo and Juliet
© Daniel Boud

Finally, the Opera Australia Orchestra, led by Nicolette Fraillon, did justice to Prokofiev’s masterful score. It was with gratitude and some wistfulness that I watched Fraillon lead the orchestra, her blonde hair shining an unearthly white against the black orchestra pit. This season marks her last after almost twenty years with the Australian Ballet. I used to watch her as a child, and at a time when there were few female conductors and few ballet conductors with her level of skill, just the sight of her was a real inspiration.

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