Sowgandhika Krishnan reviews Romeo and Juliet, which was made available for viewing on the Opernhaus Zurich website during the lockdown.

Watching a ballet or an opera at the Opernhaus is quite an experience. Live performances have different energy and atmosphere, after all. Add to that the ambience, the audience, the beauty, and the majesty of the Opernhaus! So when Opernhaus Zurich announced runs of ballets and operas on their site due to the lockdown, the question was: could it replicate the effect of a live performance?

Among the many ballets and operas on offer was Romeo & Juliet by Christian Spuck – an old story that has seen a lot of adaptations in the theatre and dance world alike; yet. an evergreen story. And with Christian Spuck choreographing it this one had to be different.

Photograph of Christian Spuck’s Romeo & Juliet at Zurich

Different it was! The story starts with a line being chalked from the front of the stage all the way to the back, dividing the stage into two, with the two warring families on either side of the line. Such a simple and unique way to depict a rift! The different characters hold attention from the start – the mature yet girly Juliet, the hot-blooded Tybalt, the brazen adventurous love struck Romeo, Juliet’s nurse and confidante, her nerdy ‘parent-approved’ suitor Paris, and, her stone-cold mother Lady Capulet. The ballet is fast-paced and has many moments of drama that keep you glued to the screen – be they the beautifully choreographed sword fights, or the stone-cold Capulet’s losing their composure at the death of Tybalt and promising revenge.

The costuming adds personality to each of these characters – be it the stiff ballroom gowns of the women enhancing their stiff upper lip demeanour, the white flowy dress Juliet wears, the unbuttoned waistcoated Romeo, the MIB esque (Men In Black) look for the Friar, or the nerdy look for Paris.

Spuck uses space in a fluid manner, unlike traditional ballets with dedicated sets. The set is a stone-cold hall with columns, an imposing chandelier and a large window. A narrow walkway above the window serves as the famed balcony. The walkway has metal ladders on either side – the best part is they are woven into the choreography as a prop. The set is minimalist, and Spuck makes minor changes and uses props imaginatively to create completely different locations. He uses long tables imaginatively. These tables serve as ballroom tables, as beds, and even as a funerary slab. The huge chandelier is lowered slightly, to create a ballroom, and lowered down to floor level to depict a bedroom. A string of fairy lights and specifically placed tables are used to create a market/public place and multiple rows of lit candles with a table to create a funeral home.

Photograph of Christian Spuck’s Romeo & Juliet at Zurich

The dancers bring in the warmth and life in the otherwise cold stage setting with a perfect mix of dancing and acting. The choreography of the Capulet’s celebratory ball with sword-wielding knights stands out. Tybalt, played by Tigran Mkrtchyan, is stately and self-assured, while Paris, played by Jan Casier, shows his sense of entitlement hidden under the nerdy demeanour through subtle body language. Juliet’s nurse and confidante, played by Elena Vostrotina, is endearing and has a peculiar ‘chari’ (Indian classical dance term for ‘walk’) that sets her apart. These smaller characters linger on in memory. The pas de deux (dance duet) of Romeo and Juliet speaks of fresh love, excitement, playfulness, and weaves in the metal ladders into the choreography to enhance the playful moments. Romeo’s heart-wrenching scream when he finds Juliet unresponsive and presumed dead is one of the high defining moments in this ballet.

When you present a well-known story, the manner in which it is presented matters a lot. One knows the Romeo Juliet story, but one is still at the edge of his/her seat when watching this ballet. You feel every bit of the intensity even though it is not a live performance, and therein lies its beauty. Christian Spuck is a very good storyteller! This one I would happily watch again.

(Romeo and Juliet will be playing again between June 26-28 on the Opernhaus Zurich website)

Image credits

Monika Ritterhaus, Judith Schlosser, Gregory Batardon

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