Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular ballets for both dancer and spectator and the production, created in 1955 by the great British choreographer Frederick Ashton and brought to the London Coliseum this week by the Peter Schaufuss Ballet has certainly plenty to please, especially the presence of its young protagonists. For the London season, director Schaufuss has invited two of the most exciting stars in today’s ballet galaxy-- the Bolshoi’s Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev -- to dance Shakespeare’s tragic lovers, and given the fact that they have just recently become engaged, the result was electric. They were enchanting, dancing with a naturalness and openness, showing their love for each other while their dramatic reactions to the ensuing drama were clearly drawn. Osipova (25) is not only a superlative actress who can evoke from deep inside her soul the unravelling drama of the story, she is also a technician par excellence, able to make the hardest step look simple and beautiful. Held aloft by Vasiliev she bends back like a delicate flower blowing in the breeze She made a spunky modern Juliet with her cropped hair, expressive face and athletic running and the audience loved her. This was no stay-at-home good daughter who did needlepoint but a fiery teenager who was ready to defy both convention and parents. The tousled haired Vasiliev (22), was every part the ardent lover. With cheeky grin and exuberant character, his flashing eyes never left the object of his desire, and throughout the ballet, he clearly showed his innermost feelings, which endeared him also to the audience. He was the ‘sensible’ one who knew he must leave the city by dawn despite his young wife’s pleas, and, after succumbing several times, he told her in no uncertain mime that he had to go. This occasion, and also when he presents Juliet with a bouquet at the wedding and she offers him one of its flowers, made for tear-jerking moments from the audience.

Romeo & Juliet, Natalia Osipova as Juliet and Maruerite Porter as Lady Capulet © Charlotte MacMillan
Romeo & Juliet, Natalia Osipova as Juliet and Maruerite Porter as Lady Capulet
© Charlotte MacMillan

The couple successfully took on the challenges of Ashton’s choreography, which is more fastidious in small detailed footwork and changes of direction than their usual big Bolshoi technique. They were fleet of foot and silky smooth in their pas de deux work. And there were also moments where Vasiliev could show off his superb physical prowess, including a couple of Spartacus-like jetes ending with barrel turns, while Osipova magically spun off multiple pirouettes where most ballerinas would do only a few.

Ashton’s vision for his ballet was to follow the text of Shakespeare’s play, focusing on the individual main characters rather than all the citizens of Verona, thus making it very different to the grandiose Bolshoi production or the internationally acclaimed full-bloodied creation of Kenneth MacMillan, both well known on the international scene. Originally staged for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1955 with Schaufuss’ parents dancing the roles of Juliet and Mercutio, this cameo production was last seen in London in 1985 when Schaufuss, then director of English National Ballet, revived it, dancing the lead role with Katherine Healy, the 16 year old champion ice skater turned ballerina. Ashton’s version, comparable more to a chamber ensemble than a full-blown orchestra, has eleven main characters with a corps of nine dancers who cluster on the raised platform but don’t come down to the main stage (The ballroom scene—such a classic eye-popping moment in other productions -- has just Lord and Lady Capulet, Tybalt, Paris, Juliet and the Nurse dancing, while the fight scenes only involve Tybalt and Mercutio, and later Romeo.

Prokofiev’s score has been considerably pruned due to the brevity of the ballet—two hours and 15 minutes with one interval, rather than three acts and over three hours—but the full English National Ballet Orchestra played full out. There are no sets—the stage is bare with steps at the back to make a higher level. Slides are projected on the backcloth to depict the scenes, which adequately convey the atmosphere so that all concentration can then be on the dancing. As for costumes, the dancers wear the same (original) outfits throughout the ballet—though Juliet does get a nightie!

Robin Bernadet as Benvolio was spritely, jumping like a springbok, while principal Alban Lendorf as Mercutio offered excellent double turns, as well as an impressive sword fight with Tybalt (Johan Christensen). (With his black outfit, sinister bullying manner and shock of white blond hair, this Tybalt reminded of Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter.) Tara Schaufuss, the director’s daughter, was a sparkling Livia showing neat clean technique while her father, once the hero, now took on the role of Friar Lawrence, who, in this production, is given much more mime and character. Everyone was to be commended, but the evening truly belonged to the Russian superstars.