In everyone's life there is an emotional impasse, a normal level of saturation beyond which lies a hinterland of raw emotions. On stage, where the rules of normal life no longer apply there comes a moment when a dancer, often at great personal risk, must cross that emotional threshold and in so doing penetrate the proverbial fourth wall. And it is for that emotional brinksmanship that we seek live theatre, theatre like that which Hélène Bouchet, Alexandr Trush and the Hamburg Ballet produced in John Neumeier’s Romeo and Juliet.

Alexandr Trusch (Romeo) und Hélène Bouchet (Julia) © Holger Badekow | Hamburgische Staatsoper
Alexandr Trusch (Romeo) und Hélène Bouchet (Julia)
© Holger Badekow | Hamburgische Staatsoper

On first viewing, Neumeier’s Romeo and Juliet reveals many new facets, oblique incidents of narrative detail that together create a complex yet simply and profoundly human tragedy. The first scene, unlike many other versions, does not end in any mortal casualties which allows a seamless transition into the youthful gaiety of Juliet’s bedroom/bathroom. It also suggests Romeo and Juliet meet at a time when both are untouched by tragedy and still filled with unspoilt innocence. We first meet Juliet, bare-foot, with only a blanket for cover, but she doesn’t quite flaunt her sexuality; instead in her pigeon-toed movements and uninhibited awkwardness (contrasted with the decorous, stylized carriage of Lady Capulet with hands clasped high at the breast) she appears to be unaware of it. And from there a story of self-discovery, of sexual awakening, of the growth and traumatic realisation of love unfolds. The lifts in the Balcony scene go from one organically extreme position to another, here in splits beneath Romeo studying him from under the chin, here swooped up on top of him glancing down at his face. There is a different sort of sweep to the Dance Of the Knights and Lady Capulet’s voluminous movements where much of the whirling force feels nihilistic, vacantly incontrovertible.  

I was struck by the way in whsanich, in this version, as in life, small things add up to larger ones, how ostensibly minor circumstantials of situation and luck determine destiny. A small meanness (a little boy playing a prank on someone else) escalates into unsheathed swords, where youthful impetuosity quickly turns into lethal, reckless violence. They are two sides of the same coin. Romeo and Juliet’s fateful meeting under the night sky starts from a seemingly innocuous action - Juliet turning around to pick up her shawl meets Romeo’s eyes and for those few precious seconds time freezes, before a headlong rush to tragedy.

Neumeier offers us a complete society, a human landscape in which every character, from the leads to the band of travelling actors, is fully realized and yet inseparable, in some way or another, from the others. Friar Lawrence, often isolated in other versions, here stands on the story’s precincts as an active though unwitting enabler of its tragedy. When Tybalt turns to flee it is Lawrence that impedes his path, unknowingly forcing a final showdown with Romeo. The moral ambiguity implied humanizes both characters. And even in the ballet’s climatic moments there is activity to remind us that these are real people not set pieces. When Mercutio is mortally wounded and the towns people form a crescent circle around him, one girl pushes forward to the foreground - private dramas are lived too.

<i>Romeo and Juliet</i> - Ensemble © Holger Badekow | Hamburgische Staatsoper
Romeo and Juliet - Ensemble
© Holger Badekow | Hamburgische Staatsoper

As Juliet, Hélène Bouchet, Hamburg Ballet'’s veteran principal and muse to Neumeier (in many of his creations) combined the expressivity of a physical instrument, of a master ventriloquist with the sensitivity of an artist capable of experiencing every moment, every note of music anew. She opened her chest, offered it to the light and immediately you could sense a reservoir of emotion beneath its calm equilibrium. Dramatic energy segued through a line (and legs) that appeared to extend from the chest culminating in a pair of exquisitely and eloquently arched feet. Bursting with life force in the balcony scene and all palatable, blushing adolescent girlishness in the ballroom scene she also found a movingly plangent register in act 3.  In the crypt scene, Juliet, glancing out into the auditorium from the rims of the stage, opens her palms and with the same pigeon-toed inarticulacy from our initial encounter with her, walks back to Romeo and to her death. Bouchet lends that scene an affecting purity, an almost curious innocence. It's then as if Juliet has, in the ballet’s dying moments, returned to her primeval state. There is nothing left to do, you could almost hear her say. And if there was solace to be found in the bleakness, almost blankness of Bouchet’s death scene it would be that for this Juliet, for Neumeier’s Juliet, there is no life, and by that I mean no poetic life, without love, and without Romeo. 

Alexandr Trusch as Romeo was all romantic platitude and ardent believability. The way he hid behind a pillar to study Juliet and then surprises her was the epitome of boyish charm. And though Bouchet was visibly taller than him on pointe, there was no sign of strain in their duets, only a single current of emotion and thought. The whole company, in fact, danced as one. Everywhere you looked and anytime you looked, you saw artists wholly invested in the onstage drama and committed to the role of their own individual characters.

The orchestra, under the baton of Markus Lehtinen was quiet, simply magnificent; playing a music that could make you weep. Not, though, that any more reasons were needed. 

*****