The Classic Story Once More Re-Told

Romeo (Francesco Scarpato) and Juliet (Andrea Kramešová) re-create the classic balcony scene Nov 15.

If you wake up suddenly at 5 am, it’s said to mean you have a troublesome worry. Here’s how ‘Romeo and Juliet’ choreographer Petr Zuska, wide awake at 5:00, solved his.

The Czech National Ballet artistic director and choreographer began working on Romeo and Juliet a year ago, he told the audience at a public discussion shortly before the ballet’s premiere Nov 14-15. But he couldn’t grasp a good starting point.

His production of the classic love story would be the sixth ballet version to be performed by the National Theatre alone. And in addition to the original Shakespeare play, the story has been re-told, reinterpreted, and re-invented in countless theatre versions, ballets, musical compositions, movies, and even Bernstein’s timeless musical, West Side Story.

Sergei Prokofiev’s original full score ran almost 2-1/2 hours (in addition to a 30 minute intermission); but later Czech ballet productions added invented characters or deleted some, so various versions lasted just two hours or as little as 60 minutes. Settings varied from the classical (with ballet dancers en pointe) to the modernistic (set in the 1930s – with a tango).

So it’s easy to imagine the ghosts swimming through Mr Zuska’s head that morning when he awoke worried at 5 o’clock. But the ghosts also included one inspiration: the role of Father Laurence.

Opposites Attract – and Repel

“I identified Laurence as a symbol of human belief in God, Good, Order, in the success of a good plan to the satisfaction of everyone,” he writes in the detailed program notes, published in both Czech and excellent English.

To Mr Zuska, the good Father’s opposite is Mab, queen of the realm of dreams and shadows. “Mab personifies unpredictability and uncontrollability … it is she who pulls the strings,” Mr Zuska writes. Although Mab is only soliloquized in the original play, in Mr Zuska’s version Mab becomes a central character, with almost equal stage-time and weight as the traditional protagonists’.

The Nov 15 premiere opened with huge, projected words, and they introduce Father Laurence wandering, and Mab strutting, onto the stage. Antonyms define the characters’ polarities – and also appear in English on the State Opera’s sur-title screen.

The audience is immediately drawn in by this largest-flat-screen-tv-in-Prague, a tasteful and clever orientation device for some who may feel more at home with electronic media than with ballet. (It would be nice to see this technique further used – a bit – in this and in future ballets.)

Opus Osm

The new production blends elements of both the contemporary and the classic (Matěj Šust, left, as Mercutio, Marek Svobodník as Tybalt).

Mr Zuska’s choreography seamlessly blends both neo-classical and traditional ballet styles. Juliet is the lithe, light, and romantic girl we want to see elegantly poised on her tip-toes, dancing en pointe; Romeo answers with vertical spins and leaps. But the anguish of Father Laurence is artfully portrayed using the more contemporary mid- and lower-ranges of the dancer’s space.

The traditional solos and pas de deux are integrated smoothly and logically into the story line, avoiding the “I’ll stand here and watch while you dance” effect that halts the dramatic arc in some ballets. The costumes and stage direction also provide additional dramatic movement and color to keep the action building to its tragic climax.

This version also includes two appearances by four talented young children from the National Theatre’s Ballet Preparatory School. Exploiting this “cuteness factor” could have been merely a ploy to boost audience approval; instead, this framing device refreshes viewers’ orientation to the plot. And like the large-screen introduction at the beginning, it is also an imaginative way to draw the audience even further in to the story.

There are many different emotions in this Romeo and Juliet for viewers to experience, but fear of an often-told Shakespearean tale presented in ballet isn’t one of them. – oo

The next performances of Romeo and Juliet are scheduled at The State Opera Dec 5 and 7, Jan 25, and Feb 11 and 13, with the final performance of the season in May.

– Mary Matz, editor of Opus Osm

Photo Credits: Photos: Martin Divíšek

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