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Westside-Eastside Story from Mats Ek: 'Juliet and Romeo'

Mariko Kida (Juliet) and Anthony Lomuljo (Romeo) in Juliet and Romeo, Royal Swedish Ballet (photo by Gert Weigelt)

In recent interviews Swedish choreographer Mats Ek has been saying that not only will he soon retire, but he will also withdraw his works from public performance. If that turns out to be the case, the Royal Swedish Ballet's U.S. tour of Ek's Juliet and Romeo, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, will be one of the last chances to see his work. Ek is known for modernizing both story and steps in his ballets, and it is likely that balletomanes with expectations for Romeo and Juliet -- the famous Prokofiev score, the Russian classicism -- will be disappointed. For anyone not averse to seeing ballet characters drawn from people we might actually meet and who enjoys a story being told evocatively through movement without getting hung up on tradition, this is well worth seeing.

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Mats Ek, Juliet and Romeo, Royal Swedish Ballet
(C Major, 2014)
Rather than an integrated score, like that of Prokofiev, Ek put together a medley of bits and pieces from various symphonic works by Tchaikovsky, arranged by Högstedt. The fact that all of the music is by one composer, and a composer who has a style that is recognizably the same in almost every piece, helps avoid the impression of a Frankenstein monster of "bleeding chunks" (to borrow the Shavian phrase) sewn together. Even so, it is jarring to go from piece to piece when one is familiar with the first piano concerto, the fifth symphony, the third suite, the Capriccio Italien, the Manfred symphony, and others I could not quite place my finger on, which in itself took away from my enjoyment of the ballet. Oddly, as far as I could tell, none of the themes from the most obvious Tchaikovsky choice, the Fantasy-Overture from Romeo and Juliet, made it into Ek's score, nor did another natural option, the heavy-handed "Fate" theme of the fourth symphony.

Ek places the action in a modern urban space, a city divided by walls, set pieces that look like corrugated metal and are moved around by the dancers (sets and costumes by Magdalena Åberg). Muted lighting (Linus Fellbom) and regular injections of fog create a smoky impression filled with shadows, and the stage wings, left open to the audience, enhance the sense of an industrial world. Romeo, danced with earnest strength and joy by Anthony Lomuljo, comes from the wrong side of the tracks and falls first for the severe Rosaline of Daria Ivanova, who does not even appear to notice him. Mariko Kida, who created this Juliet, is a bundle of energy, pixieish in stature and buoyant when she is paired with Lomuljo. In the first act, when her oppressive parents (Arsen Mehrabyan and Nadja Sellrup) try to pair her with the somewhat clueless Paris (Oscar Salomonsson), her gestures and stiffness make it clear that she is having none of it. In a memorable scene, Kida lies on the floor and her parents and nurse hold Paris horizontally above her, making the point of what her obligation is, but even prone she is like ice beneath him.

Other Articles:

Sarah L. Kaufman, Royal Swedish Ballet offers an innovative ‘Juliet and Romeo’: One for today (Washington Post, June 2, 2016)

---, Mats Ek — the Swedish rebel choreographer who’s ‘allergic to pretty’ (Washington Post, May 27, 2016)

Laura Cappelle, Why Mats Ek is Retiring—and Taking his Ballets With Him (Dance Magazine, February 29, 2016)

---, Interview: Swedish choreographer Mats Ek (Financial Times, January 15, 2016)

Roslyn Sulcas, Mats Ek, the Swedish Choreographer, Says His Goodbye Isn’t Quite a Farewell (New York Times, January 12, 2016)

Luke Jennings, Mats Ek’s vivid spin on Shakespeare (The Guardian, September 27, 2014)

Sarah Crompton, Juliet & Romeo, Sadler's Wells, review: 'fluid and thrilling' (The Telegraph, September 25, 2014)
The strength of Ek's version is the life given to the minor characters, starting with the delightful Nurse danced by the choreographer's wife and muse, Ana Laguna. In the first act, Laguna's playful gestures, cuddling Juliet like a doll or holding up her red skirt for Juliet to scamper under, made it clear that the Nurse is still child-like herself and has the closest relationship to Juliet. Jérôme Marchand takes the skinhead punk character of Ek's Mercutio and runs with it, launching his tall frame through the air with explosive rage -- at one point, he mouths the word "Fuck" multiple times to a twittering flute motif -- and yet a vulnerable feminine side as he sports a black tutu, shirtless and with several tattoos, rather than the black hoodie and leather pants he wears elsewhere. When he is killed by the pitiless, swaggering Tybalt of Dawid Kupinski, the theme of gay-bashing is in the background. Mercutio's scene with the softer Benvolio of Hokuto Kodama, accompanied by a tender violin solo played with panache by concertmaster Oleg Rylatko, is a sweet moment.

Ek would probably have done well to eliminate the role of Peter, danced capably by Jörgen Stövind, whose costume made him too easily confused with Romeo and who does not add anything to the story. The other part of the ballet that falls short is the ending, tied up quickly in a short second act, as Juliet's death is caused directly by her father's violent anger and Romeo takes his own life in despair. After so much promise in how the characters are delineated, the tragedy of the ending did not satisfy, visually or musically.

In some ways, Ek should have just stuck with the Prokofiev score, as his conception of the Capulets, among other facets, is drawn largely from Lavrovsky's choreography for that ballet. For example, Tybalt openly dances with Juliet's mother, who mourns his death just a little too emotionally for a mere aunt. In the jagged court dance scene in the Capulet home, it is hard not to imagine Prokofiev's Dance of the Knights instead of the tamer Tchaikovsky used here. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, fresh from their superlative performances in Wagner's Ring Cycle, were just as excellent in this patchwork, less worthy score, under the capable hands of conductor Eva Ollikainen. Pianist Bengt-Åke Lundin admirably tailored the solo part of the first piano concerto to the needs of the dancers on stage, the work's famous opening-chord motif serving for the awkward leg kicks of the hapless and ineffective Prince (Andrey Leonovitch) of this divided city.

This performance by the Royal Swedish Ballet will run through June 4, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Some seats in the orchestra section have been reduced to $49.

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