For Dance lovers, late July in London is marked by the arrival of the Mariinsky Ballet, who opened their 2014 Summer Season at the Royal Opera House last night with a theatrical, flamboyant and at times discerning Romeo and Juliet.

Leonid Lavrosky’s Kirov production dates from 1940, just five years after Prokofiev’s composition. Its performance, in 2014, here in London is as successful in enlightening us on the contextual circumstances of its creation as it is evidence of the Mariinsky’s mission to preserve its distinctively periodic characterisation. This was the first fully staged production of one of the most refined, yet most accessible ballets of all time. Its grandeur remains, but it’s a matter of individual taste as to whether Lavrosky’s Romeo and Juliet has aged gracefully.

Diana Vishneva as Juliet, Mariinsky Ballet © N. Razina
Diana Vishneva as Juliet, Mariinsky Ballet
© N. Razina

Most of the ensemble’s dances are infused with Italian flair. In the opening and market scenes, fast footwork, playful ports de tete and predominantly circular phrases become attributes of the Montagues, dancing and galavanting outside, while the Capulets adopt imposing épaulements, linear patterns and deep, long held fondus. This markedly steadier pace not only contrasts the two dynasties, but underlines the Capulets, in the Ball scene especially, as a hierarchised family whose lineage suffers from patriarchal domination. This feature of Lord Capulet’s family, conveyed through the ensemble dances in Act I, is interesting as it ultimately engenders the death of two young Capulets: Tybalt, who fought to defend the honour of his family name, and Juliet, who chose to go against that same honour, leading to her ultimate doom. Yuri Smekalov lends Tybalt stoical stature and precise technique, his icy impersonation splendidly contrasting Alexander Sergeyev’s theatrical Mercutio. In this production, Lady Capulet also appears overtly subjugated by her husband’s power, and the staging of Tybalt’s death is a somewhat placid affair. Comparing this controlled and constrained rendition of Lady Capulet with Nureyev’s 1984 choreography (for the Paris Opera Ballet) and its touching portrayal of a heartbroken woman whose pain and anger simply overtake all sense of duty and control, left me wishing for more out of Lavrosky’s Lady Capulet. The ensemble excels in all of the character dances. Their precise and technically faultless performance last night is a tribute to the Mariinsky’s effort to preserve character dancing as inherently central to its Ballet repertoire. Where some might venture to suggest a relative mannerism in these dances, I can only praise the corps’ excellent interpretation. The choreography does, overall, manage to convey Shakespeare‘s 1500s Verona, just as the rich sets and costumes are clearly inspired by the Renaissance paintings that have immortalised it.

Vihsneva and Shklyarov, in the Mariinsky <i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © G. Schiavone
Vihsneva and Shklyarov, in the Mariinsky Romeo and Juliet
© G. Schiavone
To see Diana Vishneva and Vladimir Shklyarov sharing the title roles is a rare treat. The freedom with which Vishneva moves – which stems from outstanding control and very pure technique – allows her to morph into Juliet’s role as if she, too, was sixteen and falling in love for the first time. She plays with Lavrosky’s choreography, secure in her interpretation that each step is there to move Juliet closer to Romeo. It’s as if, taking a risk, she purposefully stretches the notes for her jumps, takes the time to steady her fifths, and allows her body to fully extend beyond the requisite positions, aware that it will only enhance the expression of her love for Romeo. It’s as if her feet, as well as her head, know that each fatal step in the opposite direction will ultimately lead to tragic circumstances. Hers is an impetuous Juliet, whose passion offers audiences perhaps more used to MacMillan’s and Cranko’s versions a bolder take on a role often expected to be shy and reserved. Vishneva inscribes herself in the lineage of ballet’s most illustrious Juliets by taming these overflowing emotions with all the freshness and candour that her attitudes, piqués and soft landings lend to the role. Shklyarov is equally stunning, and his steady partnering not only supports Vishneva’s dancing, but successfully appeases Juliet’s tormented anguish. I was a little surprised that the production fails to clearly enact the Prince of Verona’s ultimate judgement, banning Romeo from Verona upon the murder of Tybalt. Instead, he runs off the stage with Benvolio, leaving me perplexed. But this omission is not in itself enough to disturb from the tragedy unfolding, and Shklyarov successfully transported me into a different dimension in Act III.
Vihsneva and Shklyariv in the Mariinsky's <i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © N. Razina
Vihsneva and Shklyariv in the Mariinsky's Romeo and Juliet
© N. Razina

The Mariinsky’s Romeo and Juliet offers audiences beautiful tableaux, brilliant acting, and the right balance of playful and melodramatic moments makes the tragic ending all the more powerful. It also fully explores Prokofiev’s stunning score, and each stress in the score engenders a look over the shoulder, a swift reaction, or a gentler movement of the wrist. With some of the world’s best dancers in the lead roles, it successfully renders Shakespeare’s devastating tale of impossible love, doomed fates and the overriding desire man has to confront anything that might suggest a threat to one’s own sense of identity. This production was an excellent portrayal of timeless matters, and that might well hold the key to its success.