Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Romeo + Juliet revels in its tragedy

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A Royal Winnipeg Ballet production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, January 30. Continues until February 1

From the flashing metal of swordfighting to a dazzling female lead, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Romeo + Juliet has something for just about everyone.

Choreographer Rudi van Dantzig’s choreography is heartbreakingly romantic, but there is an edge to it too, whether in the snarling bully antics of Tybalt or the blasting horns of the famous “Dance of the Knights”—right up there with Darth Vader’s music when it comes to foreboding themes.

The classic work hardly ever feels like pantomime or a showcase for technique—the sign of a great, natural rendering. Standout Amanda Green, carefully groomed by the RWB since childhood, has to take a large portion of the credit: the star has the acting range to capture the story’s loss of innocence. In the beginning scenes, her Juliet is more feistily energetic girl than fragile ballerina. Her arabesques and lift extensions seem to come as naturally as breath in her early, exalted dance sequences with Romeo. It’s later when she shows her true depth: watch Juliet’s forced dance with Paris, the husband her parents have chosen for her, where we can see she’s desperately in love with someone else and considering doing something drastic with that ominous green potion.

Fortunately, her Romeo, Liang Xing, a guest artist from the National Ballet of China, is up to the job. The tall, expressive dancer is more poetic than passionate—lovelorn, gentle, but able to effortlessly pull off jumps or hoist his supple partner skyward.

The other leads are powerful across the board, especially Dmitri Dovgoselets’s charismatic, fun-loving Mercutio—still able to mock his tormentor after being mortally stabbed—and Egor Zdor’s bloodthirsty Tybalt, whose extended, two-fisted swordfighting scene with Romeo leads to a hugely climactic end to Act 2. In the character roles, Green’s great predecessors as principal dancer make impressive appearances: Tara Birtwhistle cuts a fearsome swath as Lady Capulet, and Vanessa Lawson makes a particularly adoring Nurse. The rest of the corps is consistently strong, too, the ball and festival scenes constant flurries of polished dance.

Sergei Prokofiev’s score is the other big star in this work, and though there is no live orchestra, the recording here, by the Kirov Orchestra, is at least high-quality enough for you to appreciate its bold colorations and innovations, from the screaming strings of Juliet’s funeral to the deep orchestral pulses of Tybalt’s death march.

The set design is as lush and romantic as the score, with this archway-laden 16th-century Verona looking Da Vinci– or Bellini–esque. The costumes are richly period-authentic. The Capulets’ stylized, Harlequin-like black-and-red outfits and an eerie procession of monks in hooded red robes against the tomb are a highlight.

This is not a rendition that seeks to reinvent Shakespeare’s story or the original ballet; nor does it serve up technical fireworks and long, perfect rows of tippy-toeing ballerinas the way, say, Swan Lake does. Instead, it gets inside the story and reveals it in all its aching tragedy—to the point that, on opening night, audience members were dabbing their eyes as they rose in ovation. Oh, the pain, the horrible, beautiful pain.

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