“We didn't need dialogue. We had faces,” said Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. One of the striking aspects of the final cast to be seen during the run of Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet at La Scala was that they all had ‘faces'. How often is a dancer smiling, glancing, crying, and it doesn't read – even halfway in the stalls they become invisible, let alone at the back of the gallery.
Juliet was Alice Mariani, promoted to principal dancer a year ago. She always has a flash in her eyes, as was evident with her first appearance with the company when she seared on stage as Kitri. She has a face, certainly, but she also has an expansive, lyrical quality to her dancing that lets her body fill the stage. She played the 14-year-old simply, without being petulant or unbearably shy, and she is extremely musical (not always a given) using the musical accents to highlight her movements. Mariani is an intense actress, causing this spectator at least to mirror her short, anxious breaths, as she sat still on the bed, deciding on her best way forward to avoid the arranged marriage with Paris. Perhaps her decision to ask Friar Laurence for advice was not the best to make…
Mariani's Romeo was Nicola Del Freo, one of La Scala's finest dancers who was on top form after a couple of recent performances where he lacked the absolute control that has always defined him. He was cheeky, passionate, and angry, from his feet to his face. The athletic pas de deux were beautifully synchronised, as were the couple's steps when simply walking. That feeling of connection and oneness is vital to demonstrate that it is their destiny to be together. Its counterpart is the physical awkwardness that Juliet shows with her intended, Paris (Emanuele Cazzato). Their first encounter sees her surprise at the pleasure of a man's touch, (though maybe her almost imperceptible shiver is a shudder), but she brushes it off quickly, preferring to dance around the room – so different from her reaction to Romeo's first glance, let alone his first touch… love at first sight.
Bizarrely, the old-enough-to-know-better Friar Laurence thinks that love at first sight is possible, and agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet less than 24 hours after their first encounter. Without the marriage, of course, there would be no bedroom scene, though I doubt Shakespeare was thinking about giving future choreographers the opportunity to insert another pas de deux. Romeo leaves Juliet's bedroom after their wedding night, a moment that is sometimes referred to as the ‘last farewell', seeing that potions and poisons result in one or other being either unconscious or dead during their final scene together.
Juliet's parents bring Paris into her chamber and now she angrily reacts angrily to Paris's touch, but then, as in their first meeting, she remembers her manners and MacMillan gives Juliet a backing away pas de bourrée to express that she is not interested in his attentions.
Del Freo and all the sword fighters on stage were thrillingly realistic – it looked dangerous. The choreography in the crypt scene seemed dangerous too with Juliet's seemingly lifeless body being tossed around, often close to the hard edges of the tomb, and Mariani and Del Freo's complex series of reactions were thoroughly convincing during the final scene. The death of Mercutio (Federico Fresi) was well done, with an impressive lunge that left him horizontal over the stage before crashing to the floor (Marco Agostino, in this cast as Benvolio, was an excellent Mercutio on opening night – another ‘face'). During the pre-ball trio of the lads – Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio – they were perfectly in sync but appeared to be just casually fooling around, and excited about gate-crashing the party. Everything in the performance gelled. If this ballet does not offer truth and plausibility then it fails to engage the audience, and who doesn't want to cry as the curtain comes down.
Yet another ‘face' was Stefania Ballone as one of the harlots (sweetly referred to as gypsies at La Scala) whose devilish playfulness infused the stage with energy. The only weak link (as in many of the ballets at La Scala) is dancers still in their twenties playing older characters – stuck on beards and toned-down makeup rarely make them convincing.
La Scala has upped its game during the last decade. I remember dancers of the corps de ballet chatting amongst themselves when they were at the sides of the stage, looking on (or rather, not looking on) the action at the centre. Now stage business is detailed and at the service of the story, and the dancers seem part of a cohesive company with a common goal, committed to the drama at every moment. And dramatic it was.
Romeo and Juliet at La Scala – a photo gallery
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.