Since the Eighteenth Century, Romeo and Juliet has continued to capture the imagination of choreographers eager to amplify Shakespeare’s classic love story with spectacle, music and movement. A long list of canonical twentieth-century ballet choreographers (Tudor, Ashton, MacMillan, Béjart, Neumeier, Cranko...) have created their own versions of the tragedy. However, it is Rudolph Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet that English National Ballet’s Artistic Director Tamara Rojo refers to as ‘one of the most treasured works in our repertoire.’ Commissioned in 1977 by Dame Beryl Grey for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and having celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year, it is clear that ENB remain committed to Nureyev’s vision.

ENB in <i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Laurent Liotardo
ENB in Romeo and Juliet
© Laurent Liotardo

It is a vision preoccupied with death. At the heart of Nureyev’s production death lurks in every corner; it lingers in the form of ghosts, ghouls and heavy symbolism. In Act One a wooden cart piled high with dead bodies and severed limbs rattle as they are dragged across the stage. Towards the end of the ballet, Nureyev alters Shakespeare’s text and Friar Lawrence is senselessly murdered by soldiers; they brutally play with his slack body. While this thematic emphasis is a useful reminder of death’s dominance during the Renaissance, in practice the ballet’s heavy-handed foreshadowing has a deadening effect on the production as a whole. Gone are the urgent, tender movements of Romeo and Juliet after their first night together. In Nureyev’s version Juliet has already been visited by deathly imaginings and her limp, listless movements fail to express the adrenaline of sexual awakening.

Merging with the stalls, the orchestra’s proximity as they play Prokofiev’s stirring score compensates for Enzio Frigerio’s cinematic designs often seeming cramped on the Bristol Hippodrome stage. Monumental in scale, Frigerio took visual inspiration from 14th and 15th century’s frescoes and fills the stage with towering columns, architectural backdrops, imposing gates and hanging tapestries. Creating an atmosphere of lavish stateliness, the production’s use of colour is also particularly evocative.

Jurgita Dronina and Aaron Robinson in <i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Jurgita Dronina and Aaron Robinson in Romeo and Juliet
© Laurent Liotardo

Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet is an unashamedly male-centred version of the play. As such, there are ample opportunities for male dancers to shine as dramatic duels are staged with bravado and expansive solos allow Aaron Robinson, as Romeo, to dominate the stage. Robinson’s graceful extensions and charisma embody the image of the danseur noble while Fabian Reimair’s darting Tybalt, complete with matinee idol facial hair, provides the perfect foe. The final fight between Tybalt (Reimair) and Romeo (Robinson) is particularly dramatic as their tortured movements slow and their exhausted grunts and panting rage become audible. Despite being encumbered by bombastic choreography, Jurgita Dronina still manages to construct a convincing version of Juliet. Her soundless footwork and elevation is impressive while her portrayal of extreme grief over Tybalt’s death, expressed in brittle sharp, staccato movements, is suitably dramatic. Particularly touching in the early scenes of innocent delicacy, Dronina’s careful precision can seem overly classical at times and lacks the lyrical abandon needed as Juliet’s passion is awakened.

Occasionally, an additional haunting presence looms as echoes of Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography percolate through Nureyev’s own dance vocabulary; it is as though these traces are leftover muscle memory from Nureyev’s performance of MacMillan’s Romeo in 1965. A mistaken equivalence between quantity and grandeur also infects the production. Nureyev’s choreography ripples with an uncomfortable hysterical energy as he maximises the number and intricacy of movements. The result is an over-complicated dance vocabulary that often looks awkward. However, it’s an approach supported by the evening’s programme notes which provide an info-graphic celebrating this sense of abundance. We are informed that in the seven minutes of the balcony pas de deux there are ‘60 jumps, 22 lifts and 24 arabesques’ while the six minute pas de deux in Act Three boasts one lift every twenty seconds.

Jurgita Dronina and Aaron Robinson in <i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Jurgita Dronina and Aaron Robinson in Romeo and Juliet
© Laurent Liotardo

There is little doubt that Rudolph Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet has its fans. For Camille Cole Howard, Nureyev’s version is the closet to capturing Shakespeare’s original play whereas Clive Barnes called it ‘sophisticated’. Yet, for me, it’s this attempt to create sophisticated literary symbolism that feels strained. Melodramatic frozen fists and visits from the afterlife are clunky affectations that hamper the expressive possibilities of Nureyev’s choreography, while presenting death as a dice-playing ‘other’ in reaper-cloak and loin-cloth seems dangerously dated.

***11