A modern-day Juliet, still a child, imagines herself as an adult. She imagines having a Romeo of her own, as in Shakespeare's story. The young Juliet is played by ten-year-old Julia Balzaretti, and her real-life mother, Eleonora Abbagnato – former étoile with the Paris Opera Ballet and current director of the Rome Opera Ballet – plays her imaginary adult self. The contemporary Romeo of her dreams (danced by choreographer Sasha Riva) is the sort of pin-up idol of a child's fantasy. But darker echoes of the story of the Capulets and Montagues reverberate into the present… and the little girl's imaginary future.
She also has an imaginary friend (played by co-choreographer, Simone Repele) who takes her on make-believe rides on a white bicycle, representing the passage of time and the road to adulthood.
This is the story of Giulietta, a new work commissioned by producer Daniele Cipriani and created for the setting of the story, Verona, where it will be presented on Tuesday 19 and 22 July at the Teatro Romano, and then again at the Nervi Festival on 23 July. The choreographers Riva & Repele always work as a team, and have recently created the movement for the Italian premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Mass with the Rome Opera and the Rome Opera Ballet that opened the Caracalla Baths open-air season.
We did not want to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet – says Sasha Riva – but preferred to tell a story that moves between real life and imagination. The imagination of a little girl with a connection to Shakespeare's story that is revealed during the piece by the use of her doll.
W.C. Fields said, “Don't work with children or animals.” Well, Eleonora risks getting upstaged by her own daughter, as do you and Simone, but what about working with Julia in rehearsal?
It has been very interesting and, for us, a first. What Simone and I have found so remarkable is that Julia is very clever and has a grasp of things that are beyond her age. It's not just her way of moving – though, by the way, she is extremely quick to pick up sequences and that is not easy because it's not purely classical – but how she finds the mood of a situation and understands how to convey that moment. She asks a lot of questions and she's alert and always involved for every second of the rehearsals. We have been able to work fast as though we're rehearsing with an experienced dancer. With Julia, it's been really, really special.
The other axiom – well known from dancing school's end-of-term shows – is to keep possibly interfering parents at arm's length. That's certainly not a possibility here.
The relationship between mother and daughter, between Eleonora and Julia, during our rehearsals has been very calm and serene. Eleonora continually helps her – maybe to try to understand some moments more clearly, or to do better, and she pushes her in a good way. You see that they are very connected and that they know each other intimately. This meant that Julia, after the first five minutes, was immediately at ease with us and there were no problems of shyness, so having Eleonora there helped us a lot too. It's been wonderful seeing this relationship in a studio, which was something different for both of us.
Simone plays Giulietta's imaginary friend.
Yes, Simone is that pretend friend that many children create, who is always there at their side. There is a type of dolls' house on stage – the sort that children build for themselves with bedsheets and then inside they might read from a book with a torch. We wanted to start from this image with the little girl in her imaginary world with her imaginary friend.
The girl starts to play with her Juliet doll and imagines herself as older (played by Eleonora) and I enter as her fiancé who will come into her life in the future. So, with Eleonora, I'm a sort of Romeo and then in the end – which you absolutely mustn't give away! – you understand the connections with the original Romeo and Juliet story.
Tell me about the white bicycle.
The all-white bicycle is used as a metaphor for being on a journey to become an adult. It is not a modern bike, but a three-wheeler that Julia can perch on while Simone pedals. With the costume designer Anna Biagiotti, we've also chosen retro Italian style for the costumes for Eleonora, Julia, and me, though Simone, obviously, has something a bit more abstract. We wanted to keep it looking very Italian.
Then in Verona we'll be working with the fantastic lighting designer, Alessandro Caso. While we love staging a work outdoors, it's always more complicated to evoke a particular atmosphere, but we want to create great intimacy and lighting that helps the flow of the story, letting the audience focus on the important points.
Why have you chosen to use Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy for four hands?
Well, everything that we wanted to say was in the music with a beginning and an end. As it's not an orchestral version it remains more down-to-earth – more personal. We are very happy to have had the opportunity to collaborate with pianists Marcos [Madrigal] and Alessandro [Stella]. They have been so enthusiastic and open during rehearsals, even willing to change little things to help what we are doing.
In a couple of days there's opening night…
We absolutely can't wait! We wish we had a little more time to rehearse and go more into details but we are sure that it is a piece that will grow as we do it and bring it to the stage.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.