The Royal Ballet is currently in the middle of a three-month run of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, preparing for the upcoming revival of Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland and knee-deep into rehearsals for an eagerly anticipated triple-bill of new works. According to Guardian dance critic Judith Mackrell, it is this repertory system, with a number of dancers performing multiple roles on the same night, which makes the company ‘The RSC of the ballet world.’
As a Covent Garden regular, I feel The Royal Ballet’s creative approach makes for a wonderful game of compare and contrast. Each dancer has their own unique interpretation of a role and watching them bring that to life makes me feel I am watching any given ballet for the first time. When I wonder how dancers make roles his or her own, my mind instantly harks back to Royal Ballet principal Alina Cojocaru’s response when asked about her stage life: “Just to be on stage, I think it’s such a luxury for us to live so many lives. Once Juliet, or another Juliet, or another Giselle. You get to be in love or to die or to be betrayed so many times that maybe I don’t think anyone will live one life so much as they can live on stage.”
Cojocaru’s words didn’t register until I was fortunate enough to see her in two very different roles over a short period of time. First was Titania in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, a balletic rendition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then as Shakespeare’s ill-fated heroine in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Both parts unleashed different aspects of her dancing, but each characterisation was clearly thought out. Cojocaru’s willful Titania was very much a woman, clasping Bottom’s ass ears to her breast and audibly quivering with delight as she settled down with him in her bower. In stark contrast, her Juliet was painfully young. This was demonstrated by her childlike impetuousness towards her parents, the toothy smiles she kept shooting towards Romeo during their first meeting and, most touchingly, her initial reluctance to accept her lover’s demise in the Capulet tomb. In both instances she used the choreography as a means ofstorytelling, showing that she is not just a dancer who can act but also an actress who can dance.
Just as Hamlet remains the role most young actors set their hearts on, another of Shakespeare character’s is the acting challenge most ballerinas aspire towards. MacMillan’s Juliet is a part that leaves room for various interpretations. The role is not as technically daunting as others in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire but Juliet’s character arc, from a child playing with dolls to a rebellious teenager who gives up everything for love, is a magnet for any dancer longing to achieve her dramatic potential. During The Royal Ballet’s current run, I was able to catch two Juliets (Marianela Núñez and Sarah Lamb) within a day of each other. Their different readings of the iconic character deepened my views on MacMillan’s ballet as well as its original source.
Núñez’s Juliet dove head first into the affair with Romeo and quickly abandoned the suitor whose attentions she was delighting in. The apple of her parent’s eye, this was a Juliet who lived to take pleasure from what life offered – her first kiss with Romeo during the famous balcony duet lasted just a little longer than what is usual. Compared to the ardent Núñez, Sarah Lamb was more reserved. Lamb’s initial response to Romeo was curiosity bordering on wariness, and she approached their first dance at the Capulet ball with a sense of wonder at her sudden rashness. This Juliet was completely aware of the consequences of her actions. Her reticence finally gave way to a beautiful surrender to fate in the melting arabesques of the balcony duet as the Prokofiev music flowed through her body.
What makes theatre so special is how it reminds us of the transience of life. Dance takes this temporality to another level as a number of alternate casts share a handful of performances. Each dancer is able to tap into a different side of a well-known role, providing an interpretation that appeals to both ballet newbies and avid admirers. Is it any wonder that so many of us are hooked?