Stuttgart Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet thrills in Taiwan

National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying), Kaohsiung, Taiwan
October 26 & 27, 2019

David Mead

Now 57 years old, and still with its original designs, John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet continues to hit the mark. Making a first return to Taiwan since 1984, Stuttgart Ballet treated Kaohsiung audiences to two super performances, the first led by Friedemann Vogel and Elisa Badenes, the second by David Moore and Anna Osadcenko.

You would have been hard put to spot that Vogel and Badenes were dancing opposite each other in the ballet for the first time, his originally scheduled partner, Alicia Amantrian, now expecting her first baby. Their partnership was a delight and won the audience over with ease. They looked made for each other.

Elisa Badenes as Juliet in John Cranko's Romeo and JulietPhoto courtesy Art Wave
Elisa Badenes as Juliet in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet
Photo courtesy Art Wave

It’s impossible not to make comparisons but where Cranko’s ballet really scores over other productions is in its realism. Kenneth MacMillan’s familiar version may have the more dramatic balcony scene in particular but there’s none of the stylised dance he sometimes went in for. In Stuttgart’s version you never forget that you are watching real people.

Badenes’ Juliet starts off very girly and fun-loving. From the first meeting of their eyes, Vogel’s Romeo casts a spell on her, however. At the ball, her fluttering feet (a motif that returns several times later) betray her butterflies and nervousness. In the balcony pas de deux, any anxieties or shyness soon vanish once she has been lifted down. Emotions released, she bursts with happiness. In Vogel’s trusty hands, she flew. Heads and lips snuggle closely together.

Faced with her parents’ demands that she marry Count Paris, she grows up fast. When it’s time to take the potion, you can smell her fear. In the crypt, waking up with two dead bodies for company, she looks totally lost. But inner strength comes to the fore. There’s a moment when she looks at Paris’ lifeless body when you sense she wonders for a second just what to do and where to do it, but one glance towards the equally lifeless Romeo makes her mind up.

Stuttgart Ballet in The Dance of the Knights in John Cranko's Romeo and JulietPhoto courtesy Art Wave
Stuttgart Ballet in The Dance of the Knights
in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet
Photo courtesy Art Wave

Vogel’s Romeo enters as a real free spirit but despite flirting with her, one senses he doesn’t really have a crush on Rosalind. He was just being a bit of a lad and having fun. Meeting Juliet changes all that. One senses feelings welling up until, having helped her down from the balcony, he bursts into ecstatic, joyful jumps and turns. At the end of the pas de deux, there’s that lovely, smile-inducing moment, when he pulls himself up with his arms for a couple of last kisses.

That scene is not totally perfect. The way Paris and Romeo lift their heads at precisely the same moment in the crypt, then stare at each other for a second or two before setting to, is near comic. But what follows after Paris has been despatched is anything but. There’s none of Kenneth MacMillan’s later hauling of Juliet around like dead meat. Here, she’s held tenderly, cradled, caressed, loved; as she would really be.

On Sunday, Moore and Osadcenko were a more mature Romeo and Juliet. She has beautiful long lines but there’s less girlish playfulness. There was also more of a suggestion that she was immediately unsure of Paris. Osadcenko was just as radiant in the balcony pas de deux, but in the bedroom you really got more of a sense of unfolding events and that they were heading headlong towards tragedy. In that scene, I just love the way Romeo plays with Juliet’s hair as she sleeps (he does it again in the crypt). It’s one of many little things that count a lot.

The death of Mercutio (Adonhay Soares da Silva) in John Cranko's Romeo and JulietPhoto courtesy Art Wave
The death of Mercutio (Adonhay Soares da Silva)
in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet
Photo courtesy Art Wave

The camaraderie between Romeo and his two friends is strong. On Saturday, the audience also especially warmed to the curly-haired Adonhay Soares da Silva as the spirited and full of life but recklessly incautious Mercutio. There is something very appealing about his grin. Matteo Miccini as Benvolio made more of a mark than the character usually does too. The following afternoon, Louis Steins and Timoor Afshar respectively didn’t quite have the same irascibility.

The three friends’ dance before gate-crashing the ball is one of the ballet’s highlights. With its multiple double tours (all three get into double figures), it’s male dancing at its very best.

On Saturday, Roman Novitzky’s Tybalt was nicely cold and mean. Perhaps he took after his father, Rolando d’Alesio’s Lord Capulet, who was as icy as can be when Juliet pleads not to make her marry Paris. On Sunday, Jason Reilly added to that a sense that he was out looking for a fight, and if it was with Romeo and friends, so much the better. His expression, a sort of silent “Oh, yes,” before their first fight when Romeo was pointed out to him as having been involved in the preceding fracas said it all. The fencing was really top notch too.

Elisa Badenes as JulietPhoto courtesy Art Wave
Elisa Badenes as Juliet
Photo courtesy Art Wave

Both Martí Fernández Paixà (Saturday) and Alexander McGowan (Sunday) gave Count Paris as much depth as the character and choreography allows, with none of the effemininity or weakness that we sometimes see in other productions. In Saturday’s short pas de deux at the ball, Fernández Paixà made Badenes float like a feather on the breeze. McGowan gave more of a sense of feeling something wasn’t quite right, though.

Elsewhere, the corps filled the marketplace with colour with the rowdy vitality of the three gypsy women (Angelina Zuccarini, Daiana Ruiz and Rocio Aleman at both shows) leading the way.

Cranko’s dance of Juliet’s friends in her bedroom while she lies asleep under the influence of the friar’s potion also hits the mark rather more than usual. It’s so light and yet we know what’s coming. There’s also the fact that they dance with white lilies, often associated with death (and in ballet deaths with Giselle). A portent for the future if ever there was one. It’s just a shame the final pose, so formal and like something out of romantic painting, feels so wrong.

Elisa Badenes and Friedemann Vogel in John Cranko's Romeo and JulietPhoto courtesy Art Wave
Elisa Badenes and Friedemann Vogel in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet
Photo courtesy Art Wave

The fact that Jürgen Rose’s sets remain in service speaks volumes. They continue to work brilliantly, especially the Capulet’s ball room, the scene where Juliet dips out of the ball into the garden, and where behind the main action you can still see the party going on indoors. Then there’s the balcony meeting. Juliet walking along the colonnade in the moonlight, the garden behind, must be one of the most beautiful, evocative images in ballet.

Huge congratulations to Art Wave and artistic director Wang Tzer-shing (王澤馨) for presenting the company, and who continues to do so much to promote ballet in Taiwan. Arranging and finding an audience for two shows in Kaohsiung, not exactly known for top-notch ballet, cannot have been easy.

Top marks too to the Kaohsiung City Symphony Orchestra (高雄市交響樂團), led by Stuttgart’s assistant music director and conductor, Wolfgang Heinz, for a couple of fine renditions of Prokofiev’s score.