The Australian Ballet is in a nostalgic mood. The company’s 60th birthday is just around the corner – its first performance was in Sydney on November 2, 1962 – so thoughts naturally go to the past. Next year has been designated a year of celebration with key planks of the program being a “reinvention” of former artistic director Anne Woolliams’s Swan Lake from 1977 and the translation to the stage of Robert Helpmann and Rudolf Nureyev’s 1973 film of Don Quixote. It’s smart thinking. Two of the company’s big, big hits are reintroduced with a twist. They’re old but they’re new. They look back and ahead at the same time.
Before that, though, comes a slice of pure, unmediated history. John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet entered the repertoire at around the same time (1974) as Swan Lake and Don Q and is now revived just a few weeks away from diamond jubilee day. It hasn’t been seen for nearly 20 years so was more than due for an outing, particularly as Graeme Murphy’s radically different 2011 version hasn’t been sighted since.
As it happens, Cranko created Romeo and Juliet for Stuttgart Ballet in TAB’s foundation year of 1962 so ballet and company are exactly the same age. There’s a pleasing sense of connection right there and on opening night in Melbourne there was another delightful link between past and present. The role of Lord Capulet was performed magisterially by Steven Heathcote, now TAB’s ballet master and regional touring associate and in his heyday a glorious Romeo. As Stanislavsky said, there are no small parts, only small actors. For this season casting includes former TAB principal artist Terese Power as a warm, refreshingly unscatty Nurse and former dancer and resident choreographer Stephen Baynes as the Duke of Verona and Friar Laurence.
Cranko’s is recognised as one of a small handful of top-drawer ballet versions of Shakespeare’s play, no reservations. Well, one can argue that the twee dance for Juliet’s girlfriend-bridesmaids hasn’t aged well and that the clunkiness of Juliet’s balcony is distracting but the drama is as swift and urgent as you could wish, swept along by Prokofiev’s intensely dramatic music and always deeply attuned to its colours, rhythms, motifs and the juxtaposition of lyricism and dissonance. On opening night Orchestra Victoria, with guest conductor Jonathan Lo at the helm, gave a stupendous reading of the score’s vivid evocation of exuberant marketplace shenanigans, the strict formality of the Capulets’ ball with its justly famous Dance of the Knights and the soaring romanticism of the young lovers’ meetings. The brass and percussion, so important to the storytelling, were outstanding and Lo’s direction of this endlessly rich score was brilliantly on point.
Even better was the incomparable end of the second act. Here the squabbling and grandstanding between Montagues and Capulets comes to a head during Carnival. Romeo’s crazy-brave, sharp-witted friend Mercutio – pitch-perfect Brett Chynoweth in the first cast – recklessly takes on Adam Bull’s adamantine Tybalt. Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel, Bull slaps Callum Linnane’s Romeo with such force the audience gasps. Cameron Holmes’s Benvolio, earlier charming and cheeky, dashes about frantically. Commedia dell’arte performers are caught up in the frenzy. Tybalt kills Mercutio. Romeo slays Tybalt. All this to music that speaks more eloquently than any words could.
Lady Capulet is summoned. Perhaps on opening night signs of her affection for Tybalt were signalled with too much subtlety in the earlier ballroom scene but there was no holding back here. Huge slabs of sound drive Lady Capulet’s searing grief as she throws herself on Tybalt’s body. The chilly façade of Amy Harris’s fearless Lady Capulet was ripped away and it was shocking.
Miraculously, all this great clamour melts away as Juliet and Romeo fall immediately and passionately for one another. Linnane is a wildly attractive Romeo who flirts, fools around, fights and falls in love with the ease and occasional untidiness of the very young. Sharni Spencer’s Juliet is made of sterner stuff, growing from girl to woman before our eyes as she defies her parents, rejects suitable suitor Paris, seeks out Friar Laurence for help and takes his numbing potion with fear and courage. The gloriously gifted Spencer, recently promoted to principal artist, has the makings of a great actor-dancer.
Linnane and Spencer were at their finest together in the tomb scene that ends the ballet. There they achieved a deep connection that wasn’t always fully present earlier, at the point of extremis when death, or the appearance of it, will separate them forever. They looked wonderful in the series of pas de deux that earlier establish their mutual need but there was the tiniest hint of carefulness; of the last degree of rapturous abandon withheld.
It’s possible Linnane and Spencer are not that rare and elusive jewel, an ideal partnership, but time will tell. There are practicalities to take into account too. For the current Romeo and Juliet season three principal women appear to be unavailable and new principal artist Joseph Caley, formerly with English National Ballet, is now in the mix. He will be seen as Romeo with Benedicte Bemet as his Juliet, a pairing greatly anticipated. Principal Dimity Azoury has been cast alongside the elegant Nathan Brook, a new entrant to the rank of senior artist. His fellow senior artist Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, the handsome first-cast Paris, will dance Romeo to the Juliet of another senior artist, Rina Nemoto.
Debuts in these roles are always a signal event. There are lots to see here in this exceptionally welcome return of Cranko’s masterpiece.
Romeo and Juliet ends in Melbourne on October 18. The Sydney season runs from December 1-21. The October 18 performance with Linnane and Spencer will be livestreamed.