On its return to London after 26 years of absence, the National Ballet of Canada has presented its brand new version of the much-loved tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The company having performed John Cranko’s interpretation since 1964, an entirely new production was commissioned to acclaimed choreographer Alexei Ratmansky to mark the 60th anniversary of the company in 2011. The opening night of the ballet in London demonstrated that Ratmansky’s creation possesses a distinctive look and tone, Shakespeare’s story being told in a gentle, agreeable key rather than in a fated, tragic tenor.

The centuries-old hostility between the Capulets and the Montagues is very lightly portrayed. The story finishes with the reconciliation between the families and the signs of rivalry are reduced to the minimum. Most of the bursts of hate are concentrated into the character of Tybalt. It is to him that the heavier tunes in Sergei Prokofiev’s rich and expressive score are attached, and it is his presence that is the only constant reminder that the adolescent love story will not prosper. In contrast to his malice, Romeo and his friends Mercutio and Benvolio are depicted as a gay bunch of happy-go-lucky youngsters. The character of Mercutio is particularly well delineated. He is the good-humored guy that learns only too late that life is not a constant source of fun.

From the two lovers, Ratmansky has opted to give Romeo the leading role. He is the one who takes the initiative and the one whose presence on stage gives continuity and progression to the narrative. His role in the development of the story is also far more decisive than Juliet’s. She is almost confined to the private spaces, her young innocence and naiveté stressed by the portrayal of a warm household dominated by her benevolent nurse and her strict but affectionate mother. Her opportunities for dancing are also less frequent than Romeo’s.

One of the best assets of Ratmansky’s choreography is the vitality of the group scenes. The ensembles play an important role in depicting the background for the action since they are kept active and on stage during most of the ballet. Their presence is highlighted by the sparse but stylish set designed by Richard Hudson. Since props are reduced to the minimum and the period is mainly suggested by the rich and elegant costumes, the dynamic movement of the dancers is essential to set the mood of the scenes. In general, the intention is to highlight dance as the dominant element of the production – but since Ratmanksy invests it with a gentle quality that is more effective to express joy than angst, Prokofiev’s music becomes a key ally to foreshadow the tragic end and to give insights of the characters’ personalities and emotions.

In this evening performance, two male dancers made an impact. Piotr Stanczyk, as Mercutio, danced with comedic aplomb and sheer virtuosity, succeeding in both providing a contrasting light-hearted image to the evil Tybalt and displaying an honest proof of camaraderie to his friend Romeo. Guillaume Côté was brilliant as Romeo, demonstrating a refined technique and a charming presence on stage. He was confident in his solos, delightful in the trios with his friends, and protectively supporting in his duets with Juliet. His Romeo was a youthful lover becoming a responsible young man. At his side, Heather Ogden’s Juliet made a much milder impression, although she demonstrated beautiful lines, precise technique and amiable acting.

With this agreeable version of Romeo and Juliet, the long-awaited visit from the Canadian company has provided a good opportunity to confirm that Ratmanksy’s choreography, the second viewed in London this year after The Royal Ballet’s première of his 24 Preludes in February, is built upon a quiet and gentle classical style that pleases the eye and conveys joyful serenity.