A new cast performed a revival of Zurich Ballet Director Christian Spuck’s version of William Shakespeare’s timeless tale of Romeo and Juliet, bringing unprecedented artistry, expression and contrasts to the three-act ballet. Under conductor Michail Jurowski’s seasoned baton, the opera’s own Philharmonia Zürich underpinned the work with the rich landscape of Prokofiev’s swelling score, which starts by rising to a thunderous dissonance, but is shortly followed by what could be equated with a cloud of rising vapour, giving us the contrast of something so light as to be close to celestial.

Alexander Jones (Romeo) and Giulia Tonelli (Juliet) © Carlos Quezada
Alexander Jones (Romeo) and Giulia Tonelli (Juliet)
© Carlos Quezada

At the ballet begins, the two warring families, Capulets and Montagues – each one all huff and puff – collect stage right and left. Pater Lorenzo, (the Bard's Friar Laurence) lies prostrate centre stage like a monk taking ablutions, but them draws a chalk line the whole depth of the stage between the two groups. The acerbic divide between the families couldn’t be shown more literally, and the cavernous set itself (Christian Schmidt) is equally foreboding. Framed by towering Doric columns and a huge single-paned window, the hall also features a high walkway as the requisite balcony. A few scattered platforms serve as chairs, gangways and marriage bed throughout, each of them, for the most part, scuttled into position by the dancers themselves.

Eva Dewaele (Lady Capulet), Giulia Tonelli (Juliet) and Jesse Fraser (Paris) © Carlos Quezada
Eva Dewaele (Lady Capulet), Giulia Tonelli (Juliet) and Jesse Fraser (Paris)
© Carlos Quezada

Given the expanse of the stage, Emma Ryott’s Elizabethan-era costumes are a feast for the eye. Dark, diaphanous skirts often made spinning parachutes of the female corps; the male dancers’ stately waistcoats echoed the unbending stubbornness of their forebears. By contrast, Juliet’s simple gowns set her innocent vivaciousness apart, the white frock in the last act carrying her, while still a new bride, through to the realms of the dead.

Spuck has said he realised that the strong visuality of Prokofiev’s score held great potential for power and energy. Expanding that potential into movement, his work is marked by sustained sequences of spinning, bending and an unparalleled degree of athleticism. He readily picks up on the contrasts in the human stain: innocence vs eroticism, friendship vs animosity, passion vs passive, and that applied well to this performance, for those tensions are paramount to Shakespeare’s play. There were contortions – hands and feet bent backwards, unexpected angles – but Spuck just as readily gave us sinuous, highly fluid work. Indeed, no space around a contour, no emotional charge went unexplored.

Alexander Jones (Romeo) and Giulia Tonelli (Juliet) © Carlos Quezada
Alexander Jones (Romeo) and Giulia Tonelli (Juliet)
© Carlos Quezada

As the charismatic Mercutio, Wei Chen’s electric solo in Act 1 showed him the essence of brash boyhood, the ultimate risk-taker, whose death by Tybalt’s sword launched a whole sequence of tragic events. As Tybalt, Lucas Valente embodied the “old school” noble: upright, uptight and infinitely self-assured. The dancer’s carriage was stately, and his sword-handling no less accomplished. Indeed, the many complex and space-constricted sword fights in this production repeatedly kept the audience on the edge of their seats.

In her role as Juliet’s Nurse, Irmina Kopaczynska showed delightful humour, tremendous versatility and compassion. For where Lady Capulet was cold, the Nurse was loving. For where the mother encouraged Juliet to marry the world’s most consummate nerd (the terrific Jesse Fraser as Paris), the nurse recognised the treasure of Juliet’s love for her Romeo, and shared her young charge’s joy.

Giulia Tonelli (Juliet) and Alexander Jones (Romeo) © Carlos Quezada
Giulia Tonelli (Juliet) and Alexander Jones (Romeo)
© Carlos Quezada

Romeo and Juliet themselves were convincing and touching as first lovers. Alexander Jones was a virile youth, his open shirt, like no other dancer’s, deliberately revealing his sculpted six pack. The degree of eroticism clearly made the ballet more compelling, but even the way the lovers drew a hand down the other’s face was worthy of a poem. Jones’ footwork was secure, his interaction with his mates, synchronised, and his portrayal of the young lover, sovereign. Finding his Juliet unresponsive in the tomb and assuming she is dead at the end of the ballet, his long and wrenching scream was like that of a fierce animal, and its pain left us shuddering.

Finally, as Juliet, Giulia Tonelli was sheer perfection, the true mainstay of this performance. While she epitomised the innocence and spunkiness of youth, the magic of her love for Romeo was palpable enough to have many in the audience break out in tears in the final scene. Such acting skills, added to her precision and consummate grace, made this performance unforgettable.

*****