It’s not often in the concert hall that you fear for someone’s life. Orchestral events are serene, civilised, even sedate, so it was an uncomfortable sensation to be faced with the possibility that one slip could end in disaster when the Philadelphia Orchestra played the complete score of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, brought to life by surely some of the most extreme choreography ever devised.

<i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Pete Checchia | Philadelphia Orchestra
Romeo and Juliet
© Pete Checchia | Philadelphia Orchestra

It’s perhaps too simple to describe Brian Sanders as a choreographer or the dozen performers in his JUNK company merely dancers; they are so much more – acrobats, circus artists and gymnasts who constantly tested what was possible to achieve when reimagining this evergreen story of love, rivalry and death.

To watch Juliet (Julia Higdon) being hauled high up into the rafters of Philadelphia’s Verizon concert hall was giddying; to see her swooping over the orchestra, twisting and turning on a trapeze with Romeo (Teddy Fatscher) gave new meaning to being head-over-heels in love, but it was when she was hauled up into the balcony on a single length of fabric that you could feel the audience tense. No safety harness, no safety net, just her own formidable strength kept her from plunging on to the platform below. No wonder she was too exhausted to take more than one bow at the close.

Gripped by all the aerial wonders, it might have been easy to be distracted from the music, so Sanders and the Philadelphia’s ever-imaginative music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s decision not to choreograph every scene was a welcome one, allowing the audience space to fully appreciate the wonders of the score and the classy playing of this international orchestra.

<i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Pete Checchia | Philadelphia Orchestra
Romeo and Juliet
© Pete Checchia | Philadelphia Orchestra

Some of the more obvious sections – the balcony scene, for instance – were left for orchestra alone, but plenty of drama and surprise came elsewhere. The Dance of the Knights, with its doom-laden, marching trombones underpinning an angular string melody – probably the most recognisable scene in the score – was performed by bare-chested Romeo, Mercutio (Darren Dash Robinson) and Benvolio (Jared Cutler) suspended on giant swords that swung across the orchestra. When Juliet climbed up to join Romeo the sword upended to form a cross on which she was momentarily crucified – a clever prefiguring of her tragic death to come.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. You might have expected the Gavotte in Act 1 to be danced by a formal quartet. Instead, Darren Dash Robinson donned a tutu and tight-roped along the safety rail behind the orchestra in a bravura solo that brought the house down, and the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio (Tybalt unforgivably uncredited) was a glorious, jumping rough-and tumble rather than a sweaty, sinewy set-piece.

<i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Pete Checchia | Philadelphia Orchestra
Romeo and Juliet
© Pete Checchia | Philadelphia Orchestra

With all this mayhem going on around and above them, the Philadelphia Orchestra played on, serene and glossy as ever, that trademark sheen very much in place, with Nézet-Séguin alert to every nuance in the score. At times he whipped the players along at a breathtaking pace but they responded by generating some huge energy; the presto string playing was outstanding, for instance, when Romeo vowed to avenge Mercutio’s death.

While the choreography had little to do with ballet in the conventional sense, the grace, verve, tenderness and sheer courage on display was truly impressive. With lesser players it would have totally eclipsed the score – but this was the Philadelphia Orchestra, so that was never a danger.


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