Dance review: Northern Ballet: Romeo And Juliet

AS THE opening bars of Prokofiev drift up from the orchestra pit, one question is on everybody’s lips: “Are we at the theatre or the cinema?” Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot cites the film world as a source of inspiration for his work, and seemingly that includes the opening credits.

Giuliano Contadini and Martha Leebolt in Northern Ballet's 'angular and quirky' Romeo and Juliet. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Northern Ballet: Romeo And Juliet

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

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Before a single step of Romeo and Juliet is danced, the names of all the key players, from set designer to supporting roles, are projected onto the stage.

And frankly, why not? We know who the people entertaining us on the large and small screen are, but unless you buy the programme, talent on stage often goes unsung.

The filmic references don’t end there. Maillot’s approach to dance making is to accentuate emotion, look at things from a different angle and try to keep it real – all things a film director would readily adhere to.

Going back to the heart of Shakespeare’s play, Maillot reminds us that many of the characters in this tragic romance are, in fact, children. Teenagers learning about life, love, and the desires and conflicts awakening inside their own bodies.

Playful interactions and stolen kisses sit alongside hot-headed aggression, while the bawdiness of 16th-century theatre is evoked by Benvolio and Mercutio’s relentless hounding of the Nurse. An amusing puppet show also brings us a “play within a play”. We see all of this with our own eyes, but the story itself is viewed through Friar Lawrence – usually a secondary character, but here elevated to the man unwittingly responsible for it all.

Riddled with guilt, he replays the actions that led to the lovers’ demise, sometimes freezing the frame or – as is the case during the Tybalt/Mercutio death scene – turning everything into slow motion.

Where Maillot and the film world part company, however, is in the staging.

No attempt to emulate reality has been made – and for good reason. Devoid of colour or detail, the simple yet effective set leaves the dancers nowhere to hide. Known for their characterisation, it’s perhaps easy to forget just how technically impressive the dancers of Northern Ballet can be – but here it is for all to see.

Angular and quirky in places, Maillot’s choreography also has the capacity to be tender, passionate and dynamic when called for.

From the opening credits onwards, this Romeo and Juliet confounds expectations, but always in a way that draws you in and entertains.

• Run ended

Seen on 26.02.15