Mats Ek, thank you! For showing us, with dance, what only Shakespeare could put into words. Thank you for an evocative Romeo and Juliet, the most streamlined, and one of the best I have ever seen on stage. And an accessible, beautiful one too! These last two adjectives might seem incongruous choices to describe the Swedish choreographer’s dance, which I normally think of as more thought provoking and intellectually stirring, than I do easy, or attractive. But prettiness has never been Ek’s focus… and the beauty of his Juliet and Romeo – note the twist in the title – lies elsewhere.

Royal Swedish Ballet in Mats Ek's <i>Juliet & Romeo</i> © Gert Weigelt
Royal Swedish Ballet in Mats Ek's Juliet & Romeo
© Gert Weigelt
Commissioned in 2013 for the Royal Swedish Ballet, the piece is set in an urban, or even industrial, but certainly glaucous place, where smoke, shadows, and the not so hidden corners of ever-shifting barricades must make do for a set.  Gone are the pleasing renaissance inspired drops, warm Italian colours and romantic balconies of others’ lavish ballets. The moving nature of these walls, as acontextual in nature as they are symbolic in their function, serve Ek’s purpose, creating undefined parameters within which Montagues and Capulets struggle to cohabit. Only by appropriation of Shakespeare’s play can we really divide the ensemble into the two distinct families, Ek’s dancers are more akin to gangs whose anger is an uncomfortable reminder of the divisions and confusions still pertaining our society. Eclectic patterns effectively denote conflict, through simultaneous use of floor and heights, as the dancers run flock-like in and out of the frames. The seemingly chaotic structure of the choreography – actually as cleverly layered as could be – lends a perpetual movement to the mass; never steady, always intent, and too often perplexed in the face of life.

Gone too are Friar Laurence, the poison and the knife. In Ek’s world, Juliet must face alone her father’s patriarchal authority, without the spiritual guidance or temporary fix of tinctures and her touching lip tremble, nervous foot stomp and convulsing spine splendidly put into movement the tremors of a young girl not just forced into an arranged marriage but left to fend for herself. As clearly as in his Giselle and Swan Lake, Ek explores with Juliet and Romeo the expressive potential of the moving body, refusing to resort to mime, and finding dramatic devices within the dancers’ movements instead.

The lovers deaths are implied, finely, through the doll-like swinging of Juliet’s body in Romeo’s arms, and the alternating freezes and phrases the two observe around the other’s body. At the end, they lay, lifeless under ground, with only their legs hanging above stage-eye level. Their death is that of the heart, rather than explicitly that of their bodies, suggesting that constricting motives and rigid precepts are man-made destroying forces, but perhaps never winners, over the heart.

Royal Swedish Ballet in Mats Ek's <i>Juliet & Romeo</i> © Gert Weigelt
Royal Swedish Ballet in Mats Ek's Juliet & Romeo
© Gert Weigelt
Dance alone tells the story props once facilitated. With the Nurse her only friend, Juliet tenderly seeks refuge under the warm woman’s full dress in Act 1, looks for her comforting arms in Act 2, and looks for softness by pressing against her mother’s skirt, a despairing child whose budding, then assertive love for Romeo becomes her everything. Rena Narumi and Anton Valdbauer, Juliet and Romeo’s second cast for this run, bring candour to the work. At ease with Mats Ek’s expansive language, rolling and crawling across the stage, gliding through their duets with freedom and joy, the pair is most touching in the couple’s moments of stillness when, locked eyes longingly looking into each other’s soul and youthful hands hurriedly searching for the other’s body, they appear fragile, and almost timid. One’s body becomes the stable focal point for the other, in a dance where grounds, relationships and values are shaken to their core. Mats Ek’s theatrical genius is furthermore evident in the Tybalt, Mercutio Benvolio trio. Vahe Martirosyan is a proud Capulet, his dance both tumultuous and precise. He tackles the more angular yet never rigid pattern of Tybalt’s choreography with convincing ferocity, and an unforgiving seriousness that, by contrast, only better serves Ek's excellent rendition of Mercutio. Luca Vetere deserves praise and applause for his not only intelligent but technically brilliant performance. With snaky wrists, swift weight shifts and shoulders as soft as feathers on which he seamlessly rolls in intriguingly sinuous ways, he makes us smile, laugh and fear whole-heartedly with tragicomic brilliance. Jen Rosen‘s sweet Benvolio , calmer than Vetere’s Mercutio works well amidst all the testosterone, providing the spectator with a sweet break in the drama.

Another bold Ek decision was to overlook Prokofiev score, choosing instead a selection of Tchaikovsky ‘s finest scores. The compilation works admirably well. Where Prokofiev’s familiar notes lend weight to some productions, Tchaikovsky’s lyrical lightness serves the dance. Musically, dramatically and choreographically, Mats Ek has stripped the story of elements that others have, to a greater or lesser effect rejoiced in layering on. His Juliet and Romeo is none the less as round and as polished as the play itself, and Royal Swedish Ballet’s performance is assured, meaningful and foregrounding. Less is more in contemporary theatre, and Mats Ek’s dance, undoubtedly, is one of its driving forces.

*****