Pawns in Queen Mab’s game

Anu Ruusmaa

The Vanemuine Theatre ballet troupe marks its 80th anniversary this season. It has been a very colourful journey, rich in exciting choreographers, distinctive dancers with their personal styles, and interesting chorographical experiments.

Romeo and Juliet by choreographer and director Petr Zuska, which reached the stage for the first time at the Czech National Ballet, attested to the yet another bold decision by the Vanemuine ballet director Mare Tommingas. The brand-new production searches for new colours and solutions to this love story that has captivated audiences around the world for centuries. Zuska’s choreography and directing has brought together a diverse and energetic contemporary ballet that is based on a layered sensibility and works as a drama of the human spirit. In places, it gets so multi-layered that it is hard to follow and distracts the viewer’s attention. A dramatic ballet requires dancers to develop well-crafted characters and dance masterfully.

The choreographer has highlighted the relationship between real and irrational. Occupying the stage at the same time are real characters, who live their own lives, and Queen Mab, who twists not only the flesh and blood young lovers around her finger but also manipulates Friar Laurence, the man of God. Timeflow is variable during the performance – sometimes it comes to a halt, when Queen Mab crafts her manipulations at fateful moments; then there is dynamic and brisk movement forward when real events gallop off at a crazy speed. Throughout the performance, we can sense a premonition of something ominous about to happen and Thanatos accompanies life at every moment and is ever-present. Above all, this feeling is supported by the empathetic Friar Laurence whose best intentions founder due to the will of Queen Mab.

The stage design and costumes do not stress any one era, but rather leave the viewer free to imagine the action unfolding in the present – and after all, Romeos and Juliets are encountered even today. The action on stage also leaves spacetime abstract, instantaneously morphing into something else. The dense and image-rich lighting design lends the stage atmosphere and richness of tone colour.

The choreography is multifaceted, the levels alternate, there is a memorable amount of turns and pirouettes. The crowd scenes played by the troupe and the duets between the main characters are emotional and lively, whether the movement is synchronized or given rhythm by techniques from symphonism.

In thinking about the characters’ choreography, the question comes up: how and by what means to separate the real and the irrational from one another? While Mab is dancing and in action, time stands still for others on stage, yet the choreography arranged for Mab – which is richly plastic – seems worldly to the core – feminine hip movements and flirting with the audience. Tarasina Masi is a very limber and intriguing dancer, but in this role an earthly, flesh and blood woman who determinedly sows chaos around her.

The most dramatic character in Zuska’s production, friar Laurence, is in a difficult situation. He has not been given time for an internal life, rather he is a dejected man of God cast about by Queen Mab, his good intentions and faith are put to a real test. The character created by Jack Traylen is rich in nuance, emanating a sense of unsettling hauntedness. No matter what how he tries to create balance in and around himself, his existing view of life and death have been turned upside-down, because Queen Mab is stealing up behind his back and she leaves nothing to chance. The internal drama of friar Lorenzo ends with the tragic death of the young loves, against the will of the cleric, but he himself must continue living with this painful experience and inner anguish.

While Shakespeare places the main emphasis on the family feud, this is secondary in Zuska’s production. The Capulets are danced by a female group and the Montagues by men, and they do everything together, squabble, dance in the ballroom, where formal relationships evolve into erotic dance. Instead, central conflict develops from a row between the elders and the youngsters over masks; Romeo and Juliet each refuse to wear masks, because they symbolize the external dignity, arrogance and duplicity of their clans. In this generational conflict, the youths reject their parents’ rigid and haughty attitude and aspire toward their true selves, pure love and humanity.

Romeo and Julia, who in this version become not main characters but pawns for Queen Mab, are archetypal lovers, as the director willed it. Their choreography contains beautiful and memorable moments. Especially the tenderness of the balcony scene, where Juliet paces the balcony and Romeo below touches her footfalls –a simple and real moment. The relationship between the young lovers is above all tempestuous and passionate, love at first sight. It cannot manage to bloom into deep love; they have not simply been given time for that. On stage, Hayley Blackburn and Alain Divoux seem virtually made for each other; their duets are passionate and dynamic and brim with the overflowing energy of puppy love.

The choreography created for Mercutio has a dynamic and vital effect -– Matteo Tonolo dances organically and emotionally as an opposite of Tybalt’s straight and stiff, downright icy mien. Tybalt as played by Jack Anderson Gibbs is the one who wears his clan’s mask without it giving him pause, values hoary traditions and demands that Juliet do so as well.

This is the third Romeo and Juliet interpretation in the distinguished history of the Vanemuine’s ballet productions: a production by Ida Urbel reached the stage in 1946, and Mare Tommingas’s version premiered in 1993. Petr Zuska has given the Vanemuine troupe a worthy opportunity to tackle a dense, choreographically rich and expressive production. The troupe is up to the task and indeed seems to breathe as one, and complicated techniques are performed with experience, as if they were making up the dances spontaneously as they went along.

(Sirp, 2 November 2018)