John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet (set to Prokofiev’s score) is the ballet that made me fall in love with ballet. I had been dancing since I was tiny, and had seen the usual complement of Nutcrackers and Sleeping Beauties, but it was the balcony scene of this Romeo and Juliet, Scottish Ballet’s default production until the late 90s, that first made me giddy with delight; the bedroom scene that first made me cry. Aged nine or ten, it was probably the first time I had seen one of the immortal tragedies in any art form, and it blew me away: for those who might think ballet a poor second to drama, I can only advise them to watch the Cranko Romeo and Juliet – every word of Shakespeare’s is there.

© Betttina Stöß
© Betttina Stöß

I mention all this by way of warning, since my reaction to the Berlin Staatsballet’s current production of the Cranko at the Deutsche Oper is unavoidably influenced by those childhood memories. I haven’t actually seen the choreography for a good fifteen years, nor, probably, have most British ballet-goers: Scottish Ballet have a modern choreography by Krzysztof Pastor; English National Ballet do their own Nureyev version; The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet have Kenneth MacMillan’s. I feel it is rather a shame that British audiences don’t know the Cranko as well as Europeans do: having seen it again after years of adult ballet-going, I can safely say that my love of it wasn’t just down to youthful impressionability – it is really superb, full of youthful vigour, inventive, emotionally resonant choreography, and careful interpretation of the Shakespeare.

The Berlin Staatsballett did a wonderful job of bringing out the strengths of the Cranko, which requires extremely vivid characterisation from every dancer. The acting was uniformly superb, from the major characters right down to the three gypsy girls who animate the crowd scenes. At certain points, perhaps – the mourning of Tybalt – it edged from naturalism into expressionism, but that worked in the context; and the all-important scenes between Iana Salenko’s Juliet and Marian Walter’s Romeo were transportingly tender studies of emotion. Tiny, pale Salenko is a convincingly petulant child until Walter lifts her down from the balcony and the wonder of love begins to transform her; Walter’s Romeo had been only a rather foppish, foolish young man, horsing around in teenage high-jinks with Mercutio and Benvolio, until, alone with Juliet, the real tenderness of his nature (so different to his posturing adoration of Rosalind) begins to show through. Both Salenko and Walter are gorgeous dancers, and indeed the standard of dancing in the whole cast was exceptional: the crowd scenes as Cranko wrote them are full of quick and demanding steps for the supporting characters, and the dancers of the Staatsballett executed them with precision, verve and brio – not the easiest combination to nail.

Guillermo García Calvo took the orchestra of the Staatsballett through the Prokofiev with an ear for drama: the famous march of the Montagues and Capulets was menacingly fast, Mercutio’s death agonisingly slow, and the lower strings in particular played throughout with a dark, slightly ragged sound that reminded us of the certainty of tragedy even in the love scenes of the first act. As far as the music, storytelling and dancing go, this production was an unmitigated triumph.

The same cannot quite be said for the Thomas Mika’s designs, which, along with the rest of the production, are new this year (premièred on 9 February). The theme is dark and light, and in some respects it works well – the all-black flats and props inevitably foreground the dancers, who are brightly lit from above or from the side, while the mostly-black with gold costumes for the ball scene were both visually striking and dramatically effective. The preponderance of shiny fabrics in the costumes, though, was not – the enormous gold lamé cloaks worn by the arriving ball guests, the pink satin quilted doublets worn by Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, and Paris’ diamanté-studded get-up were particular low points.

Still, Romeo and Juliet stands or falls by the quality of the storytelling, not the costumes, and by the final tomb scene it had the glorious, unstoppable momentum of tragedy. The cast looked drained; the audience loved it; my non-ballet-going friend and I were both impressed into silence on the first part of journey home. Any decent Romeo and Juliet ought to do that, but this one is considerably more than decent: the Cranko is an essential, world-class choreography, and the Staatsballett a company of extremely gifted actors and dancers. If you live in Berlin, or ever visit there, I highly recommend seeing it.