Countering the need to stay al fresco, the Deutsche Opera House was packed for the last performance before the yearly summer break despite the hot weather. The many tourists in the audience were not disappointed by the Staatsballet’s interpretation of a classic such as John Cranko’s version of the most famous love affair gone seriously wrong. Between fans flicking and perfumes being unconsciously transported by the artificial breeze, the dancers movements brought us right into Shakespeare’s opulently chilling Renaissance Verona, the site of the bickering blood-feud between the Capulet’s and Montague’s Houses. Majestically performed, it is a delight of movement and décor.

<i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Yan Revazov
Romeo and Juliet
© Yan Revazov

The dance opens on a marketplace: in the early hours, Romeo – perfectly interpreted by Marian Walter – is declaring his love for Rosalinde (Sarah Mestrovic) before several merchants and sellers arrive with their goods occupying the square. Thomas Mika’s clever décor allows for the characters to be seen on two levels with an elevated platform over part of the stage, adding to the effect of crowdedness without taking away from the individualisation. Mercutio – a wonderfully exuberant Alexei Orlenco – and Benvolio (Olaf Kollmannsperger) rejoin Romeo in a light-hearted dance of hopping arabesques that plays extending the lines of their belted swords. Soon though, a fight ensues and with it the casualties that will spiral the retaliation between the families.

<i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Yan Revazov
Romeo and Juliet
© Yan Revazov

And here my synopsis of the three acts and twelve scenes work stops as Prokofiev’s score and Cranko’s choreography follow Shakespeare’s play closely. Starting with the music: the ballet has unruly origin. Commissioned by the Bolshoi and composed in 1936, it was finally performed in a reduced version in Brno in 1938, under the explanation that Prokofiev’s music opposed the social realism diktat. In ballet, the story has since been reworked several times and especially around 1962, the date of Cranko’s version for the Stuttgart Ballet – the most famous being Frederick Ashton’s in 1955, Kenneth MacMillan’s in 1965, and John Neumeier’s in 1971. Cranko’s is considered a milestone in post-WWII Germany, as it contributed to the resurgence to international fame of German ballet. Before Cranko’s arrival, Stuttgart was a relatively unknown provincial city with a similarly relatively unknown theatre. With Cranko as a catalyst, Stuttgart was suddenly on the dance map. In his version, ballet technique becomes the vehicle for extreme expressivity so that despite its 57 years, the work still looks and feels fresh.

<i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Yan Revazov
Romeo and Juliet
© Yan Revazov

Restaged for the Staatsballett Berlin in 2012 by Georgette Tsinguirides, who danced the piece before becoming Cranko’s in-house choreologist documenting his works, in Romeo and Juliet something dysfunctional boils underneath the glossy surface. Cranko brilliantly follows Prokofiev’s score in its twists and turns that posits very lively and optimistic scenes only a few notes apart from deeply disturbing ones. The orchestra, conducted by Ido Arad, gave swing and punch to several scenes, such as undercutting the otherwise too solemn masked ball or dampening the (only partially dramatic and potentially soggy) discovery of Juliet’s body by her family. The musical interpretation added to the stunning effects set in Prokofiev’s score: during the masked ball the lowest notes played by the wind instruments seemed to give body to the sound, resonating in one’s marrow. This was heightened to the point of asphyxiation by the black and gold costumes that, together with Venetian gold masks, remind strongly of Stanley Kubrick’s secret elite’s encounters in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The exaggerate shine of the costumes echoes the time when glitter was needed to be seen in candlelight. To add another visual reference, Father Laurence – a fully believable Eoin Robinson – reminds one of Jude Law as the Pope in the drama television series, The Young Pope. Ksenia Ovsyanick is a graceful and timid Juliet, on the verge of adulthood, who, together with Walter as Romeo, perfectly portrays the mix of youthful tenderness and the characteristics of first love. Orlenco, as Mercutio, wows with his entertaining presence and powerful jumps, whereas Vahe Martirosyan interprets the choleric Tybalt wonderfully.

The Staatsballett closed its season in great style. Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet sits very well with the vision of the new artistic direction. The past season cleverly catered for the tastes of an increasingly heterogeneous audience possibly gaining additional followers and dispelling the fears originated by the change in direction. The company has gained and the dancers look better than ever. I have already checked what is in store for the future and look very much forward to the next season after the deserved (for the dancers) summer break.

*****