MacMillan’s R&J: A pivotal moment in the history of the Queensland Ballet

Remember the date. June 27, 2014 at the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane, marked the day that the Queensland Ballet’s artistic director, Li Cunxin, fulfilled his ambition to elevate the company to the A-list.

The Australian premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet, illuminated by guest artist Tamara Rojo, was a victory for all, with the audience rising as one at the first curtain call in recognition of the combined efforts of the company dancers, the guest artists and the Queensland Symphony under the direction of Andrew Mogrelia.

The guests, Rojo (Juliet), Daniel Gaudiello (Mercutio) and Steven Heathcote (Lord Capulet) added star quality to the premiere, but it was the production as a whole that impressed, along with the input of the MacMillan stager, Julie Lincoln and her assistant, Yuri Uchiumi and the richly coloured sets and costumes on loan from the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Most remarkable was the performance of Rojo, who despite her no doubt arduous role as artistic director of English National Ballet is still dancing with exquisite artistry and technical facility.

Rojo made the transition from a naĂŻve girl to a love struck young woman entirely believable. In MacMillan’s luxurious choreography Rojo spoke with her entire body – the amplitude of her back, highly arched feet and the focus of he eyes – and all this with a new partner, not with Carlos Acosta, with whom she has danced so many times, but with Queensland Ballet principal, Matthew Lawrence, a former principal of both the Australian Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Rojo and Lawrence’s maturity and experience made this partnership work despite what must have been fairly limited rehearsal time. Their minutes of stillness as they see each other for the first time was a spine shivering beginning to their romance and while Lawrence was not as carefree and confident as Rojo to start, his interpretation grew stronger with each act.

With at least 17 student dancers joining the company for the season, the corps de ballet filled the stage in the market place and ballroom scenes but in order to keep staging the classics at the highest level the company does need to increase the number of fulltime professional dancers in the corps de ballet.

Gaudiello demonstrated once again his ability to illuminate a role. His Mercutio was not just a joker but dangerously impetuous and ultimately heartbreaking as he succumbs to Tybalt’s rage. Heathcote was a sinister and forceful Lord Capulet and Vito Bernasconi a terrifing Tybalt from his first appearance.

Choreographically, it’s interesting to compare MacMillan’s R&J with his later Manon. In both ballets, the Harlots flaunt and fuss, and the heroine sits demurely on a chair as she is entranced by the dancing of her future lover. Each ballet has two passionate love scenes in which the ballerina’s legs form scissor shapes as she is lifted by her partner, and each ends with a tragic death scene that more than matches the 19th century melodramas, La Sylphide, Giselle and Swan Lake.

There’s no Manon equivalent though for the fuzzily dressed acrobats in Romeo & Juliet’s Mandolin scene. They create a compelling sense of growing hysteria before the horror of slaughter begins in earnest.

MacMillan’s R&J production is now almost 50 years old, and while it “borrowed” (to put it politely) from John Cranko’s earlier R&J it has the advantage of richer renaissance settings and costumes designed in 1992 by Paul Andrews.

Andrews sets refer to Italian Renaissance paintings, in particular to the art of Paolo Caliari, (also known as Paolo Veronese), with their archways, ornate columns, and coral/scarlet colours. The lighting by John B. Read emphasises each archway and highlights the dancers standing within them like a series of portraits.

The Queensland Symphony more than rose to the occasion. Prokofiev’s superb score is the most compelling interpretation in music and dance of Shakespeare’s play, one that tells the centuries-old-story, the utter futility of all wars, whether between individuals, families or countries.

The season continues until 5 July.