Romeo and Juliet – Núñez, Soares, Underwood – The Royal Ballet – Nov 20 2015

Throughout Act I Marianela Núñez‘s Juliet appeared more Núñez than Juliet. It seemed this was a naturalism verging on not-quite-trying but then the approach became more defined, more invested and consequently more affecting in Acts II and III. Passion and grief are Nuñez’s professional tessitura – as well as beautiful form and athleticism.

Act I’s Juliet is often a nascent being dramatically, physically, emotionally and as such she doesn’t lend itself to Núñez’s gifts – whereas for a talent like Francesca Haywards’s, the role is a gift in Act I, but as she’s still a young dancer herself, her presentation declines somewhat in emotional force as it goes on.

Emotion then is Núñez’ line, and the ballet whole, her song. Her partnership lacks the pizzazz and flash of Salenko and McRae, who, I have decided, have honed their craft to have technique par excellence as their imprimatur. No bad thing.

Soares and Núñez have ardency on their side. Their real chemistry (being real husband and wife) is, contrary to some thoughts, no hindrance. In fact it serves as a wellspring from which to nourish the heart of the piece.

Strong is Núñez’s Juliet, no gamine ingénue this – which takes some getting used to. More woman from the get-go than coltish girl, her “journey” is somewhat diminished as a result. From my restricted vantage point in Upper slips row BB some lyricism and richness – not to mention continuity – of motion was lost. The Balcony scene was a write off. The lift in Act I’s ball scene (one imagines the first time Juliet has truly been held by a man, and held aloft, literally to ascend into society like from debutante to dame, held and shown like a trophy) was rather taken for granted by this Juliet. There was, compared to for instance, Hayward, less wonder in her eyes. Indeed, some of the choreography was tinged with a patina of rote rather than revelation, as if quickly learned.  Partnering wasn’t scrappy, they are too good a couple for that, just a touch less polished than I would have liked. No big deal. I moved seats to stand from Act II onwards.)

Thiago Soares was a lightly dramatic Romeo to start with. He was, like Núñez, a little transparent in characterisation. He seemed to have a tiny bit of trouble with some landings in the Act I pas de trois for the boys.

His foil, Eric Underwood‘s Tybalt, had taken this lightness a little too far so as to appear too transparent, as if not made of much of anything. He was largely (sadly) absent of motive, inflection, intent or affect. I would like to see more panto-face from Mr Underwood, which as Gary Avis understands, beams right to the eyes of every viewer. Too subtle by far, his concession to character was to swagger and sneer a tiny bit. Prescription: More braggadocio, once a day (must complete the course). Still, Mr Underwood is, I think not a character dancer, far from it. It is a good role to be offered so as to find oneself challenged by new approaches.

There was thus violence (McMillan) but little villainy (the dancer). To bring fate crashing down, to seal the full dramatic deal and complete the arc of rash deeds needs menace from Tybalt. Buckles most definitely could have been swashed a bit more.

Swordplay itself was not as thrilling I had seen from others in this run, until Romeo and Tybalt’s duel, which upped the sword bashing ante. Some earlier strokes were missed, to obvious detriment of thrills. In that duel though, Soares threw heart and soul into it, Underwood’s surprise half acted, half real. Very well done, as was Soares grief at Mercutio (Valentino Zucchetti)’s death. Tybalt’s too. Benvolio  (Fernando Montaño)’s acting was wonderful too, as was his dancing.

More moments: the couple’s hug after being wed: genuine love, unfeigned affection. And then there was the brief “bed soliloquy” more powerful for being silent, a soundtrack to a roiling soul. Of the Royal Ballet’s Principals dancing the role, Núñez alone understands McMillan’s intent. Salenko’s face was a mask, Hayward’s too subtle, too interior. Núñez knows, as does Prokofiev, that this is the crux of the work – the piece is Juliet’s tragedy entirely. McMillan knows that repose, a thoughtful face is not enough. A truly gifted dancer finds gravitas in absence of motion. Motion’s antagonist is lack of motion, which is not to say lack of motion is inarticulate. Lack of motion’s eloquence is a stillness, hints of force within. Emotion. As Juliet sits on the edge of the bed and the music grows, an interior life must grow too, amplified by the music. Her soul calls to us. One saw the resolve in Núñez’s face, and it was moving to see.

That same intelligence fills the ballet with memorable moments. Núñez understands too that Prokofiev – or McMillan – links musical motif to character. On waking in the bedroom scene she stirs, her body half turns, her hand reaches and finds no Romeo. She sits bolt upright, and then sees him. She is loved, and rushes to him. In the crypt, after Romeos’s death, she stirs, her body half turns, her hand seeks her Romeo, now dead. She sits bolt upright – and is lost, horrified at her surroundings. That same movement recalls earlier bliss, and heightens present woe.

We see the same living characterisation in the bedroom scene where love enjoins delay. We see it most strongly in the crypt scene. Núñez’s grief piercing, suffered, not just shown. Soares drew upon those same feelings. In the duet with her body (and how bizarre to write that,) Soares was harrowed, movingly so. Núñez’s lifeless form still held a powerful line, Soares flinging it into his arms in desperation. Not as limp as some have played her in those moments, Núñez varied her form – at one moment limp and ugly, at another still beautiful as in life. A mark of a fine dancer.

Her Romeo spent a touch too long coddling his wife on onset of death  (forgiveable in one’s last moments) but perhaps not so much when one must fit action to music so precisely, with the unfortunate effect that his actual moment of death seemed a bit rushed. This was also, interestingly, the only Romeo and Juliet of this run I have seen where Juliet touches Romeo upon dying, to be joined in death forever. Both readings, non-touching, touching, are touching. I also think it’s interesting to compare the various slumped forms at the end of the ballet – or in Juliet’s case, the varieties of famously ugly death pose.

So much for an attitude of death. Helping bring the stage to life were the corps of the Royal Ballet in a vital and well-realised portrayal. Townsfolk went about their day, swished skirts to dancers, egged on fighters, grieved at death, ran afraid from fights – and were ballroom folk too. Harlots (Kristen McNally, perhaps the Royal Ballet’s female Gary Avis, which I mean as highest praise, Helen Crawford, and Beatrix Stix-Brunell) were devilishly danced. I hadn’t also realised that Mercutio casually murders a guy within the first five minutes, and smilingly enjoys it. Life in Verona: nasty, brutish, short. (Life in McMillan’s ballet, beautiful, refined, passing by in a rush.)  Mercutio’s death was danced well. What can feel terribly long (and to the child next to me, whispering “why doesn’t he just die?” terribly silly) worked rather well.

And who was this, one of Juliet’s friends with beautiful port-de-bras, glorious turn of a hand and épaulement, dancing as Juliet plucked her mandolin?  She turned to face us and…aha, that explains it. Yasmine Naghdi, of course. Another Juliet and only twice so far in her career, and I gather, perhaps the best Juliet the RB has fielded in this production. Beauty even in anonymity of character, where sadly from others, anonymity of character was their downfall.


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