Matthew Paluch John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet in Stuttgart
|Title||Romeo and Juliet|
|Date||21 October 2023|
William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was first published in 1597, and some 12 years later the first iteration of what we now know as the Stuttgart Ballet began as the court ballet of the dukes of Württemberg.
Fast forward to 2023 and I find myself in Stuttgart watching the company for the first time on their home turf in John Cranko's 1962 production of Romeo and Juliet.
I'd hazard a guess that any medium-sized upwards ballet company of merit has a Romeo within their repertoire, and the story clearly still holds attraction as we know of many productions being currently performed globally: MacMillan, Ashton, Nureyev, Ratmansky, Ek et al.
My education means I grew up with the MacMillan (1965) version. It's a ballet I know almost inside out, and one that I've had a complex relationship with. As with most things, if you see too much of it, it can begin to feel tiresome. Especially if different dancers all seem to be following a somewhat fixed template of interpretation.
I had the privilege of spending some proper time in the studio when the ballet was being set on a company a few years ago. This working insight allowed me to return to where I once was with the work – in awe of the storytelling skill and enlivened by the choreography throughout… the lead couple's infatuation, Lady Capulet's grief to the Harlots' frivolity. One could go on, but let's return to Germany.
Cranko's ballet predates MacMillan's by three years, and it's widely written that MacMillan saw, and was inspired by Cranko's production, no doubt supported by the fact his muse, Lynn Seymour, guested with the Stuttgart Ballet as Juliet in 1964.
The cast on 21 October 2023 saw David Moore and Rocio Aleman as the star-crossed lovers. Aleman is Mexican and finished her training at the Stuttgart Ballet School before joining the company in 2011; Moore is English, Royal Ballet School trained and joined Stuttgart in 2007.
Act 1 unfolds without any major surprises, though what's offered suggests MacMillan evolved the choreographic capability of the narrative ballet. Especially when contemplating the pre-Ball trio for Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio. Fine, it isn't the most important scene in the ballet, but endless double tours don't communicate anything.
However, the sets (and costumes less so) by Jürgen Rose are in a class of their own. The terracotta minimalism and Renaissance patterns really take one to Verona, as do the atmospheric backdrops and endless depth of perspective. You sense beyond the buildings, which isn't the case in other productions. There are some bones of contention though…
The first red (pun) flag is the colour choices. When dealing with a binary narrative it really helps to emphasise this through assigning colours to tribes. But Rose has the Montagues in red at the beginning, then everyone arrives in red to the Capulet ball, then the Capulets wear black and gold though they'd sported blue and cream earlier in the act… with none of this visual confusion helping with the storytelling aspect at all.
The second is the stagecraft throughout. I found the mise-en-scène – from corps de ballet through to (some) lead principals – on the hammy side. It felt oversold, which consequently doesn't feel genuine. Dramatic pitch isn't an easy skill, therefore it's imperative it starts early (at vocational school) and has constant analysis and readdressing throughout a dancer's career. This was lacking for me, which is problematic for a story ballet.
Act 2 has a spectacular last ten minutes. Matteo Miccini's Mercutio death scene is a little on the dramatic side, but it was also the first time I truly started to buy into the tragic narrative, though I'm sure the score helped no end. Moore's realisation that he, Romeo, is to blame for Mercutio's demise is also very powerful, and Martino Semenzato's Tybalt is the epitome of predatory stalking at this point.
From his first entrance in Act 1 it's evident why Semenzato's been cast as Tybalt. The look is ideal – tall, dark, dangerous… But most Tybalts have this, yet few follow through into the deeper characterisation. Semenzato's Tybalt is the ideal balance of aristocratic and thuggish. The only suggestion I'd make is that he could walk heel first, which would bring even more gravitas to his stage presence.
Seeing Cranko's Lady Capulet, brilliantly performed by Sonia Santiago, one understands where MacMillan found his inspiration. Though where MacMillan went with movement and encompassing space, Cranko chose stillness and in-the-moment realisation. His Lady Capulet communicates the reality of shock, how it feels and what it looks like, and the final image of Lady C being lifted whilst on Tybalt's death stretcher in the midst of a funeral procession is unforgettably chilling. However, the technical crew could slow the closing of the curtain somewhat, as we lose the powerful image too soon.
The first half of Act 2 is less successful with the group scenes and dances lacking in tangible narrative and choreographic depth. Cranko hasn't developed the relationships between the Harlots (Gypsies in Stuttgart) and the lead men, the townspeople all blend into one, high energy Disney-waving mass, and there are some very peculiar movement choices – cartwheels, walkovers and shouldering of the leg?! Also, the divertissement is buffoonery central. I get that everyone's aiming to communicate carefree joy, but it feels way too far on the vacuous side.
Act 3 is a mix of pros and cons. The pros being that the principal couple get to find more depth in their roles, and Rose offers a brilliant visual moment when we see Juliet being lowered into the Crypt after she's taken the potion. The cons are what's missing… No pivotal scene for Juliet on the bed maturing from girl to woman – how could Cranko not include that section of the score? No pas de deux with Paris, which is so integral to Juliet's character development, then Juliet's friends dance to the music from Act 1 in Act 3 which feels (to me) like totally the wrong mood.
This also made me compute that Romeo doesn't get to serenade Juliet in the Ballroom scene during Act 1 – another imperative moment lacking in the story's unfolding.
To the principal couple. Moore's Romeo is both passionate and dynamic in performance. He offers assured technique throughout and vivid use of the upper body, reminiscent of the English/Ashtonian style. He's a big fan of the ‘gaze into the auditorium' approach, which works at times, but I think there's a little more depth of character research to be done.
Aleman is the quintessential Stuttgart ballerina – tall, long-limbed and with pliable, beautiful feet. Though this body type is renowned for being difficult to work with and can sometimes miss visual clarity in action. I found this to be the case with her dancing. She brings energy, no question, but the phrasing often misses ‘finish' and the projection it enables. I also struggled with her runs. Juliet does a lot of running in the ballet, and when done well it can bring a whole, additional dramatic dimension to the role. Think Alessandra Ferri or Sarah Wildor.
The couple did good work in their two key pas de deux though. The balcony feeling was improvisational and risky (in a positive way); the bedroom anxious and full of despair.
When the curtain opened for the star-crossed lovers to take their first bow, the house went nuts. I haven't heard or felt applause like that for quite a while, and it was wonderful to be part of it.
The conductor always gets the final bow when the whole company is on stage, even after the lead couple, and this says a lot to me. The music, and the way it was played, was the biggest achievement in my book. The sound coming out of the pit was rich and full, and if the acoustics informed this, the quality of playing by the Staatsorchester Stuttgart lead by Wolfgang Heinz can't be denied.
Things seem to be going well in Stuttgart – the audience is happy and the company invested. I was also pleased to be in the auditorium and engage with the work.
[Photo Album] Stuttgart Ballet – Romeo and Juliet
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.