Is London the new St Petersburg? At least, so far as ballet is concerned? What a choice there was on this warm June evening. The Royal Ballet performing Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House; English National Ballet The Sleeping Beauty at the London Coliseum; and this performance of Romeo and Juliet, by Birmingham Royal Ballet, at Sadler’s Wells. If one preferred an al fresco experience, the Royal Ballet’s performance was also relayed to a huge screen in Trafalgar Square (plus hundreds of other screens, around the world). With the three biggest ballet companies in the UK performing concurrently, there was a good claim for London to have become the world capital of ballet, at least for a few days!

César Morales and Momoko Hirata in <i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Bill Cooper
César Morales and Momoko Hirata in Romeo and Juliet
© Bill Cooper

The London companies have been on top form, and BRB’s visit to Sadler’s Wells had a lot to live up to, which this fine performance achieved, in spades! Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is a much-loved cornerstone of The Royal Ballet’s repertoire, regularly re-visited on the London stage. But, Birmingham has its own unique version of the same ballet: MacMillan recreated the production, with new sets and costumes, for BRB, in 1992. It premiered at the Birmingham Hippodrome just a few months before the choreographer’s death.

Watching it, here at Sadler’s Wells, was like meeting the near-identical twin of that much-loved friend. So many indistinguishable features, so many similarities but, also, with subtle touches and nuances that show a different character. The staging helped create a new intimacy with a production we know so well, seeing so much of the detail from a closer proximity and a lower trajectory between stalls and stage. The designs by the late Paul Andrews, inspired by the classical style of the Italian Renaissance, are much lighter and softer in style than the palatial sumptuousness of Nicholas Georgiadis’ vision for the original production. 

The BRB dancers delivered a full house of outstanding performances. Momoko Hirata and César Morales were ideally matched as the star-crossed lovers, both giving as fine a performance as I can recall in these leading roles. Hirata danced beautifully and expressively, easily conveying Juliet’s youthful impetuosity. She has a special aura of pliant delicacy, like a Bird of Paradise flower wavering in a gentle breeze. But, her steely technique is resolutely unwavering in its precision.  

César Morales and Momoko Hirata in <i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Bill Cooper
César Morales and Momoko Hirata in Romeo and Juliet
© Bill Cooper
Romeo is the role that Morales always keeps in his top drawer. Every aspect of the young, tragic hero is shaped and drawn with considerable artistry. He is cocky; he is smitten; he is a poet; he is a fighter. Morales – the greatest dancer Chile has ever exported to Britain – has been a journeyman principal dancer in UK ballet companies, since joining ENB, in 2004.  He has now been at Birmingham for a decade but appears remarkably youthful for this CV and every aspect of his performance was utterly believable as the idealistic young Montague.       

Everywhere one looked throughout this cast, the performances were top notch. Rory Mackay’s dead-eyed, alcohol-fuelled Tybalt made an effective contrast to Tzu-Chao Chou’s devil-may-care Mercutio and the Montague clan’s male triumvirate was completed by Brandon Lawrence’s charismatic portrayal of Benvolio. They danced the difficult trio outside the Capulet’s House with notable uniformity. The sword-fighting, so often comic in its timidity, was full-on in its ferocity while retaining the essential choreographic structure and musicality. Whoever was responsible for that level of detail in the coaching deserves fulsome credit.

There were strong performances, too, from Yijing Zhang as Lady Capulet, giving full vent to MacMillan’s brief essay on besotted grief, over Tybalt’s body, at the end of Act 2; Feargus Campbell as an upright, handsome but deadly-dull, Count Paris; and Ruth Brill as a surprisingly alluring Nurse. The quick movement repartee in the “letter scene” between her, Romeo and his friend and a stage full of townspeople and mandolin dancers was delivered with skilful comic and physical timing. In Andrews’ vivid costumes the mandolin troupe looked like Hungarian Komondor dogs (that breed with the Rastafarian-style coats).       

Sadler’s Wells is never the best venue for orchestral acoustics but Prokofiev’s luscious score was still a treat by the musicians of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. The competing requirements of a London evening rammed-full with ballet meant that BRB’s Music Director, Koen Kessels, was elsewhere – on duty at Covent Garden – and his place was taken by a worthy alternate in Paul Murphy.

BRB is on the cusp of change. Caroline Miller – the architect of One Dance UK – has taken on an interim role as Chief Executive and David Bintley will step down as director, after 24 years, in July 2019. Whoever succeeds him will find a company in very fine fettle. It is a huge pity that BRB does not always get the recognition it deserves and performances such as this should go a long way to righting that wrong.