As dance fans were celebrating the local premiere of Mats Ek’s 2013 production of “Juliet and Romeo” at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa Friday night (June 10), we were simultaneously contemplating never seeing any other ballets by Ek. The 71-year-old Swedish choreographer will soon take a break from the dance studio—perhaps a final retirement, though maybe not; even he’s not sure. But he has said that once he’s done, he will not renew the performance rights to his ballets. Phewt! Just like that, all his works gone, for good.
Which had me asking: Can you miss something you haven’t seen? Ek’s modern-dance-style ballets are rarely seen in the U.S.; I don’t believe (though I could be mistaken) that any American companies perform his pieces. In 2002, I saw his revolutionary adaptation of “Swan Lake” (from 1987), performed by Cullberg Ballet at UCLA’s Royce Hall. It was an inspiring and radical reimagining and, with men cast as swans, appeared to have paved the way for better-known productions, notably Matthew Bourne’s celebrated version.
So, yes, there was a bit of mourning going on as I was reveling in the Royal Swedish Ballet’s performance of his “Juliet and Romeo.” What a shame that we have experienced such a narrow slice only of this transformative artist’s work.
For the Shakespeare classic, Ek has pared the details to two acts, and traded in the familiar Prokofiev ballet score for a select patchwork of Tchaikovsky: a little Manfred, some Piano Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 5, String Quartet No. 1, and so on. (Finnish conductor Eva Ollikainen led the Pacific Symphony musicians in mostly inspiring playing.) Tchaikovsky’s own “Romeo and Juliet” overture-fantasy is pointedly missing from the lineup. The music does not give us other references and perhaps for this reason, and for the stellar way in which musician Anders Högstedt adapted the selections, the score feels like a natural whole, rather than cemented together crumbs.
The lovers’ Verona is a dark smoky stage stripped of wings and backdrop, with corrugated moveable walls resembling boxcar sides that are shifted to create plazas, rooms, diagonal walkways and generally evoke an ominous atmosphere. The unidentified and indistinguishable citizens don’t so much fight as stalk about in formations, their heads down and legs deeply bent—something like Groucho Marx’s deep-knee gait but without the humor. Enforcers (my word) occasionally appear on Segways, and a collective shiver goes through the crowds. This is one bleak landscape.
As the ballet’s title suggests, Juliet is a more fully illustrated character than Romeo, and her proscribed life as a young female feels far more prison-like. When Juliet rejects Paris near the ballet’s conclusion, it is her Father’s rejection—vividly illustrated when dancer Arsen Mehrabyan raises his arm toward her like a rifle—that knocks her out, not any sleeping potion. Ek gives nearly equal weight, and certainly equal time to ancillary characters. Mercutio in particular is highlighted. He, not Romeo, is the leader of their gang of three (with Benvolio), and as portrayed by the bald and brawny Jerome Marchand, he is outrageous—taking a leak on the walls—but a fearsome bully, too. That “thing” between Lady Capulet, here called Mother (the excellent Nadja Sellrup) and Tybalt (a smoldering Dawid Kuinski) is made blunt and obvious. The Nurse (portrayed by Ek’s wife, the renowned Ana Laguna) is a force of strength.
Even with all this other action taking place, though, the central love story is not slighted. Mariko Kida is a perfect Juliet, and a perfect Ek heroine: earthy, emotional, sexual, fleet and technically wizardly. Anthony Lomuljo’s Romeo starts out as a naïve boy, but grows up fast when confronted with something to live for. Their two major duets are highly charged, but so different from the usual love pas de deux because Ek’s characters never interact in expected ways. When Lomuljo lifts Kida, her body sags; at another moment, she hangs onto his back in an ungainly upside down position with her legs parted like antenna behind his head. After a rush of cantering steps they finally crash into one another in a desperate hug, and this co-joining, so long in coming, becomes that much more resonant for the surprise of it.
At the pre-performance talk, Ek said that the story’s two legs are young love and violence. The story is universal to begin with. But its the way he sticks to those themes that Ek makes it fresh all over again. This almost feral ballet cuts to the heart. It is a reflection that is at once centuries old, and of today, too.
Here’s hoping for more Ek, tomorrow, as well.
“Juliet and Romeo,” Royal Swedish Ballet, 7:30 p.m. June 11, 1 p.m. June 12; Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. $30 to $160. (714) 556-2787, scfta.org