The Vanemuine’s black and white escapades

Heili Einasto, Postimees

The Vanemuine ballet troupe has started its 80th season on a strong and self-assured note: besides a Czech take on Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, an unusual photo album dedicated to the anniversary year was published.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has seen so many different kinds of interpretations for the screen, theatre, opera and ballet stages that it seems impossible that there could be a completely new version. But the Czech choreographer and director Petr Zuska has managed to do just that, bringing Father Lorenzo to the centre of the action, as his psychological drama provides a framework for the ballet.

It is Lorenzo’s “goodness that leads us indirectly toward the tragedy at the story’s end,” the director writes in the programme, “and worst of all, he himself survives”. The other catalyst in this story is even more unexpected – it is Queen Mab, the “monarch of the kingdom of dreams and shadows”, who embodies the “unpredictable and uncontrollable”. The foil for Lorenzo, who is clad in black and writhing in agony, is Mab – quiet, white, invisible to the other characters but incessantly guiding their destiny, a slitheringly scheming and sinuously unrestrained character.

The black priest and white Mab rule over a world of black and white tones, the colours of the clothing stemming from the roles: women– the Capulets – red; and men– Montagues – blue. In Zuska’s production, the warring clans have been supplanted by competing genders, and the conflict of the tragedy stems from the insubordination of the youths (Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio as well) to the predetermined order of society.

Wages of sin = being burdened in life

The main conflict in Zuska’s ballet is between order and chaos (love). Order is symbolized by masks, which in this tale are reminiscent of visored helmets. Romeo and Juliet’s guilt before their family lies that they both sense (and thus they support one another) that they do not want to wear masks that conceal their actual nature from each other (and the world). It is precisely this insubordination to order that is the reason that Tybalt, a strict and earnest follower of tradition, flies into a rage at witnessing a burst of passion between the unmasked youths, and why he wants to keep them apart.

There is no Paris in this story for whom Julia has to be kept, there is only the opposition to Romeo as the rebel, one who has stripped off his mask. Mercutio as well is disagreeable to Tybalt with his levity and humour, which, in his constant state of tipsiness comes to the fore and keeps him from taking himself, the world or life too seriously.

Death in this production does not follow a spectacular swordfight, but rather is dealt by a touch of Mab’s hand (chance), looking at her and following her. The events that lead to death are the result of Mab’s capriciousness: it is she who brings Romeo and Juliet together and she who removes the masks from the youths and she who shows the unmasked lovers to Tybalt. She not only sets the chain of events rolling but also intervenes in every stage. And although she invites many to the dance of death, she spares Lorenzo’s life as if out of spite, as if to show that trying to create order from chaos and harmony will be punished by the curse of life, in a reversal of the Christian message that the wages of death is sin.

Standout performances and consistent level of quality from the troupe

Romeo and Juliet is essentially a drama-ballet, the work and Zuska’s production in particular requires dancers to act superbly and build their characters. His choreography is a rich meld of contemporary ballet styles and the characters movements have an emotional grounding – dance renders visible the drama taking place in the human soul.

The psychological journey of Hayley Blackburn’s Juliet from mischievous waif to a strong loving woman through a defiant teenage period and her brave foray into love, communicated through refined and carefully considered movements, is impressive.

Alain Divoux’s Romeo is an impetuous and restless young man who lets himself be controlled by Juliet’s emotions. Alex Drew’s long and lithe body and sinewy long arms are able to manifest the knotty internal struggles of Lorenzo and Tarasina Mas’s meandering movements display clearly an indefinable, unpredictable direction and elusiveness.

As a whole, the Vanemuine troupe is more consistent in dance technique and physical proportions than they have been in the past, and Zuska’s production proves that they are capable of convincingly managing the performance of any terpsichorean text.

Dancing the Tartu

To mark the 80th anniversary of its ballet troupe, the Vanemuine also published an attractive album with black and white photos by Maris Savik – in which the troupe – some now departed for other dancing grounds – are shown interacting with various places in Tartu. These are not typical ballet photos from roles in performances, but rather portraits of personas – as they are seen by artistic director Mare Tommingas, who uses the photographer’s experienced eye to reinforce that vision.

With its hijinks shot in black and white, anniversary album celebrating ballet at the Vanemuine stands in contrast to the more academic and conservative (albeit full-colour) approach taken by the national ballet – the books complement each other, just as both each troupe does on our stages.