Romeo and Juliet, RNZB

St James Theatre, Wellington, August 16.

Francesco Ventriglia was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet when he proposed making a new Romeo and Juliet to replace Christopher Hampson’s highly regarded version, made in 2003 to mark RNZB’s 50th anniversary and revived for four more seasons. Ventriglia’s tenure didn’t quite work out as planned and in November last year, two years into the job, it was announced he would leave the post in June. He would however stay on as a guest choreographer to complete R&J.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham as Romeo and Juliet. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Hampson’s version was set in the 1950s. Ventriglia returns the story to the 15th century and Italian aristocratic life, vividly evoking a society in which excitable young men with not enough to do are constantly on the prowl for mischief while young noblewomen must face the prospect of marrying Prince Wrong to shore up the family’s standing.

Renaissance Verona comes up a treat in British designer James Acheson’s sets and costumes. He was clearly the right man for the job, what with a mantelpiece laden with Oscars including for The Last Emperor and Dangerous Liaisons. This is a man who knows his way around opulence. The elder Capulets gleam in crimson, Juliet shimmers in floaty white and pastels and the inevitable harlots make whoopee in sexy swagged frocks that are a riot of saturated colours, set off by fabulous boots. Business must be excellent.

The only disappointment is that Acheson – one assumes he must take the blame – has apparently agreed to fall obediently in line with classical ballet’s inviolable harlot rule. It states that women in this profession must be identified, without fail, by a desperately unbecoming explosion of frizz on their heads (cf. Manon). Most tiresome.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Kirby Selchow, Katie Hurst-Saxon and Veronika Maritati. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

This irritation aside, Acheson’s design is a powerful character. There are great arches, a wide central staircase and tall columns that deftly redefine spaces. For the balcony scene Juliet at first appears, Rapunzel-like, in an opening carved out of a tall, otherwise faceless tower that speaks of a material world that has stood, and will stand, for generations to defend its inhabitants from envious outsiders (or perhaps a young man who might want to take liberties).

We don’t know why the Capulets and Montagues hate one another but it doesn’t matter. Their enmity is woven into the fabric of their lives, as is religion. It must be observed. In a brilliant touch, Juliet’s bedchamber is dominated by a huge painting of Madonna and Child under which Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage, mute testimony to the role Friar Laurence plays in the tragedy and the inescapable influence of the Church.

The visual richness is a wonderful match for Prokofiev’s music, which conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington played to the hilt at the opening. They gave urgency and sweep to the big moments that give brass and percussion occasion to let rip and McKeich drew lush playing from the strings. While the sound was more persuasive at full bore than in the score’s more intimate sections (possibly a function of the St James acoustic), McKeich’s reading of this exceptionally familiar music gratifyingly offered new things to hear in it.

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Abigail Boyle as Lady Capulet. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Ventriglia responds to the music with choreography that is always fluent and apposite but not greatly revelatory or distinctive. He does, however, give the staging plenty of piquant flavour, a result, no doubt, of his collaboration with dramaturg Mario Mattia Giorgetti. Their work pays handsome dividends. There is no alteration to the broad sweep of the narrative – everything is in its expected place – but close attention is paid to the spaces in between. You see this at the Capulet’s masked ball when Tybalt warns Juliet off Romeo with the smallest shake of his head, a moment that adds texture to their relationship. Don’t do this, he’s telling her. Don’t go there. It’s the tinest thing yet adds to our understanding of the relationship between the cousins. There are a myriad other examples that give characters nuance and actions a reason for being. Of course Tybalt, who sees what’s going on, would let Juliet know he knows.

Most striking is the depiction of Lady Capulet and her relationship with Tybalt. At the masked ball their desire is barely suppressed and when Romeo kills Tybalt, Lady Capulet’s grief and rage explode like napalm. She rips off the mask of propriety and doesn’t care who sees the naked passion beneath. Just in case anyone was under the misapprehension she was mourning a favourite nephew, Lady Capulet marks her territory with a voracious kiss almost as shocking as the one Oscar Wilde’s Salome gives the head of John the Baptist. Abigail Boyle’s ice-and-fire Lady Capulet was a sensation, well matched by Paul Mathews’s deeply attractive Tybalt.

Not surprisingly, the younger lovers came to look a little pallid in the shadow of such drama, or at least did on opening night. Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham acted engagingly and danced their series of complicated pas de deux with much skill. Skelton is handsome and an able partner, Graham is adorable and both were very sweet, but neither clawed their way to the peak of great tragedy nor plumbed the depths of exhilaration and desperation.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Massimo Margaria was a wild Mercutio, Filippo Valmorbida enchanting as Benvolio (I think he’d be a rather good Romeo) and Laura Saxon Jones all elbows and daffy kindness as the Nurse. Mayu Tanigaito stood out in the quartet of Juliet’s friends and dances Juliet at some performances, partnered by Kohei Iwamoto, who managed to make something of the fairly thankless role of Paris on opening night. Jacob Chown was tremendously good in the tricky part of Lord Capulet, who has to keep up appearances as a man of substance in the face of his wife’s barely veiled contempt.

Romeo and Juliet ends in Wellington on Sunday August 20 then tours to seven cities around the country, ending on September 24.

Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2017

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s search for a choreographer to make a new Romeo and Juliet for the company in 2017 was a short one. After the sell-out success of artistic director Francesco Ventriglia’s The Wizard of Oz in May this year, the ballet company’s board asked Ventriglia to take the job himself. In a big coup for the company Romeo and Juliet will be designed by James Acheson, a triple Academy Award winner for costume design who happens to live in Wellington. Acheson was responsible for the lavish costumes in The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons and Restoration and is setting Romeo and Juliet conventionally, and no doubt sumptuously, in Verona in the late Renaissance. It is Acheson’s first ballet assignment and Ventriglia says the initial discussions with him have been “extremely interesting, challenging and inspirational”.

Ventriglia promises a big, “really classical” production and will use the Prokofiev score. He knows the MacMillan version intimately from his dancing days – “I was Paris, I was Tybalt; it’s part of my DNA, if you want” – but says the MacMillan and the equally admired Cranko versions were perfect “for their moment”. In other words, those productions, which premiered in 1965 and 1962 respectively, are now more than 50 years old. There’s room for other interpretations.

So Ventriglia is doing what he calls a lot of diving into the text and music to find his own way into the story, and is working with a dramaturg to make sure there is “a reason for everything”. A key issue for him, for instance, is the relationship between Lady Capulet and Tybalt, whose connection he wants to strengthen. Romeo and Juliet opens in Wellington in August 2017.

Two mixed bills in 2017 will buck the usual mix’n’match trend by focusing on a single choreographer. RNZB’s opening season, which runs from February to April, features two works by Roland Petit, a choreographer who featured strongly in Ventriglia’s dance career at La Scala (“I grew up with him”) and whose work is rarely seen in this part of the world. New Zealand audiences will see L’Arlesienne (1974) and Carmen (1949), both to the music of Bizet. (The Australian Ballet performed Carmen in 1973.)

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Abigail Boyle and Massimo Margaria in a promotional image for Carmen. Photo: Ross Brown

Petit died in 2011 after a long and celebrated career. The second featured choreographer, Swedish-born Alexander Ekman, is just 32 and has been choreographing only since 2006. In the middle of the year RNZB will revive Ekman’s wildly popular Cacti (2010) – which it performed earlier this year as part of a triple bill titled Speed of Light – alongside company premieres of Tuplet (2012) and Episode 31 (2011). Ekman’s website describes Tuplet as “a swift, pulsating, eighteen-minute tour-de-force for six dancers which asks the question, what is rhythm?”. Episode 31 was made for Juilliard students in New York and is for a large group of dancers.

Ventrigila plans to organise offstage events to complement both programs. “They will open a new communication with the public,” he says.

RNZB will also help celebrate New Zealand School of Dance’s 50th anniversary at a gala in November. NZSD is the Official School of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and senior students undertake corps de ballet roles in some productions, as they will in next year’s Romeo and Juliet. RNZB’s repertoire is yet to be announced but will include a work to be staged during the 2018 season but unveiled early for the anniversary celebrations.

Next year is a Tutus on Tour year and in 2017 RNZB will take a gala program to regional centres – “a good, proper repertoire gala; even in the small cities they will see the real Royal New Zealand Ballet”. While the program hasn’t yet been finalised, Ventriglia is thinking along the lines of the Le Corsaire pas de deux and Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.

There is no international touring locked in at the moment but it’s something Ventriglia always has his eye on. He’d like to take the company back to Italy soon and a return to China is on the cards. “I want to build a bridge between New Zealand and the rest of the world,” he says.

Ventriglia will have a slightly larger company with which to do that. Next year he is able to increase his dancer number to 36 from the current 34.