What’s in a name? A lot apparently. Celebrated Swedish choreographer, Mats Ek, brings his Juliet and Romeo to the USA with the Royal Swedish Ballet, declaring about his re-ordering of the title, that it’s ‘time to turn the tables’. But, as he points out, one of Shakespeare’s early drafts had it that way too, so maybe he is just reverting to the original. This mixture of the radical and the traditional is evident throughout. Choosing as his musical canvas a potpourri of Tchaikovsky’s works (what more conservative?), he reformulates the classical idiom into something freer, looser and more immediately relational. Something fresher, and more demotic too – a whiff of the street. He is well known for taking the language of choreography down a peg or two, talking of rolling, running or splashfoot rather than adhering to French terms. His characteristic lower-leg kick he describes  ‘kicking oneself loose from the stable’ (not, note a pas de cheval), and in a sense that is what he is always up to.

Anthony Lomuljo (Romeo) Mariko Kida (Juliet) © Carl Thorborg
Anthony Lomuljo (Romeo) Mariko Kida (Juliet)
© Carl Thorborg

One of the signature features of Ek’s work is that the dancers run. Not a pretty, courtly little ‘couru’ but something with greater flow, viscosity even. And they ran here – they ran in groups, Montagues and Capulets, aligning and realigning the bleak walls of the set, humans pushing into motion the ugly corrugated symbol of their tribal divisions. With an exquisite freshness, even naivety,  Juliet (the gamine Mariko Kida) and Romeo (Anthony Lomuljo) run towards each other in a wide circle to give each other not the usual perfunctory balletic embrace, but a hug. Later, she tries to hold her running lover back, seeking to retain the person, the moment, the nearness of love. There’s something of the deliberately unslick about the pair, their movements adolescent, in their discovery of their own and another’s body. The very youth of the romance is evocatively captured, like when they touchingly mirror each other’s demi-pointe.

Mariko Kida (Juliet) Ana Laguna (Nurse) © Carl Thorborg
Mariko Kida (Juliet) Ana Laguna (Nurse)
© Carl Thorborg
There are moments too of great relational comedy. The Nurse, Ana Laguna’s pas de quatre with Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo is just such a treasure, as full of robust slapstick and boisterous hi-jinks here as it is in the play. With grey hair drawn in a simple pony-tail, Laguna was a refreshing antidote to the usual cult of youth in ballet, where the older dancers most often get to play staid, regal parts – just stand around and look dignified. As Ek’s wife, she has lived longer than anyone with his style, and how good to see her as the good-hearted earthy, even bawdy, surrogate-mother. Her pas de deux with Juliet was a lovely representation of women at very different life stages; Juliet’s sheltering under her skirts at the end was a poignant touch.

Jérôme Marchand as Mercutio was a wonder to behold; when he was on the stage it was hard to look at anyone else – luckily for Romeo, he was killed off early in Act II. A long-limbed dancer, with a shaved head, it was easy to imagine him as a ‘street’ character. For Ek had re-imagined those eternally fractious Renaissance clans as today’s urban gangs. Quite properly so: there surely isn’t as much to divide a doublet-and-hose from jeans, hoodies and metallic suits as we might think. Ek has described his style as ‘torso-focused’, in the sense of expression coming from the mid-core of the body and Mercutio’s physicality seemed ideally suited to this.

The portrayal of grief and anguish was particularly well conveyed. Think Picasso’s biomorphic Acrobat in the evocations of shapes. Juliet’s mother, Nadja Sellrup, had a convulsively powerful solo in mourning Tybalt’s death. Joined by other bare-footed women, this turned into a dance of vengeance.  Since the Italian vendettas were historically male, it was particularly apt, given the title, that we should see how Juliet was strong enough to go against the female vendetta.

Laguna (Nurse), Sellrup (Lady Capulet),Mehrabyan (Lord Capulet), Salomonsson (Paris), Kida (Juliet) © Carl Thorborg
Laguna (Nurse), Sellrup (Lady Capulet),Mehrabyan (Lord Capulet), Salomonsson (Paris), Kida (Juliet)
© Carl Thorborg
There was no marriage – no Friar Lawrence  – none of that melodramatic and implausible stuff about sleeping potions : the very simplifications smacked of contemporary Sweden. Still, there could have been some annunciation of these omissions in the program, especially given the unexpectedly short Act II. Juliet drops dead from grief at her father’s anger, his finger pointing her to her death, and there Romeo finds her. Whether the ultimate tragic irony of the play is or is not fulfilled is ambivalent, for the apparently-dead Juliet does indeed wake briefly and dance, although maybe, as far as Romeo is concerned, just as a figment of his imagination. And he dies from no apparent reason other than grief. Nonetheless, the essentials are all there: love, death and redemption (although the stage of raised legs might have looked more like rigor mortis than sapling trees, to those somewhat macabrely-minded). 

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