"... never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo," Shakespeare ends his play of the two lovers that were separated by their feuding families and finally found a similar fate together in never ending sleep. It is a story that, though rooted in the 1500s, has been current ever since, and at the bottom of the continued success of the play and art works derived from it lies the fact that more or less everyone at any time can identify with the torments of unfulfilled, secret love.

© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper

It is this timelessness that also marks Kenneth MacMillan's choreography. MacMillan created a ballet that seizes every opportunity Prokofiev lavishly bestows on the choreographer in the form of rich, vivid, dramatic music, and yet it is as closely guided by life-like expression as few others are. While Paul Andrew's lush designs, all columns, velvety drapes and billowing gowns, create a Verona that has just stepped out of a Renaissance painting, MacMillan's crowd scenes outside the palazzo are distinctly down-to-earth in their character dances, happily strode, skipped and leapt by Birmingham Royal Ballet to the sound of mandolins from the pit.

There, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Koen Kessels gave a solid performance of Prokofiev's popular score that was once said to be "impossible to dance to". While the Ballroom and later the Wedding Scene suffered from the odd squeak in trumpets and horns and some tuning in lower strings turned sour at a later stage, the musicians strongly shaped the contrasts of light and (a lot more) dark. In one moment they piled heaps of mighty low brass to quickly lift this heavy veil and reveal light, shimmering strings in the next.

As vivid and close to life as the crowd scenes were the characterisation and development of the main characters, beginning with Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio. In this typical bunch of adolescents with nearly-innocent mischief in mind at all times, William Bracewell made for a calmer, thoughtful, more restrained Benvolio, all of his bravura steps cleanly and pleasingly executed. He was complemented by James Barton's more reckless, more provoking Mercutio, who, with bold leaps made light of any situation – even as he is fatally wounded after a passionate fight with Tybalt (Rory Mackay), who remained a little pale in comparison to the trio. Joseph Caley as Romeo gave a heart-warming portrayal of the smitten youth, wandering dreamy-eyed in every movement, every turn imbued with that all-engulfing abandon of first love, every leap radiating its weightless confidence.

This also accounts for Juliet danced by Momoko Hirota, always closely followed by her stooping, scurrying, ever-worried nurse (the excellent Marion Tait). Climbing down from her moonlit balcony to meet Romeo, she was the thirteen-year-old in love whose insecurity at this first romance only shows in the lines of her arms that often aren't completed, drifting back to hover undecidedly before wrapping themselves around Romeo - it was a gorgeously danced pas de deux with adoring lifts that revealed something surprisingly sensual for a first dance. It is a turning moment; from then on, the change in Juliet is palpable; gone is the childish innocence, replaced by an increasing resolve and maturity, both towards her parents and towards Romeo. The same passion of the Balcony Scene pervaded the Bedroom pas de deux, strongest not in Juliet's admiring arabesques or her swooning into Romeo's arms, but it is the long moments of stillness, cautiously filled with the tension of unspoken feelings in the final pas de deux that are the most moving despite their awkwardness.

It is the little moments of awkwardness that I love about this final moment. Within one of the most touching, most heart-wrenching pas de deux, MacMillan briefly breaks the spell of drama and allows his dancers to be ugly. Romeo wills Juliet to hold her embrace around his neck; he picks her up, staggering, she slumps to the ground, he grabs her arm and drags her across the floor 'like a piece of dead meat'. It is unexpected even though you know it's coming, it's cold, it's cruel, and yet it makes both all the more human, makes the scene ultimately real and identifiable, before he resumes the final caress of his beloved with desperate, tender lifts, worshipping Juliet's lifeless body, arms dangling. While both soloists could have been more daring in their portrayal of the lovers' suffering, Caley's Romeo's refusal to accept the loss of his lover was heart-breaking - as was Julia's silent scream so far apart. It is a scene that never fails to move to tears. One that leaves you grieving for the lost unknown, and one that brings a dramatic end to a magnificent story, rendered here with plenty of love and hope, and plenty of glorious dancing.

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