There is an upside to not attending the premiere of a classical ballet, and attending a later show instead. It provides an opportunity to sample other dancers besides the company’s usual standard bearers. Of course, in Romeo en Julia (Romeo and Juliet) by the Dutch National Ballet, it would have been nice to see principal dancer Igone de Jongh shine one final time before she leaves the company to explore a solo career (her performance on October 31 will be her last). But a different cast may also prove a pleasant surprise. And boy, did it ever!
Semyon Velichko, who joined the Dutch National Ballet in 2015 as a soloist, looks like a young, carefree Russian with his strong face. He could have walked straight off the pages of a Tolstoy novel. As Romeo he is all youthful optimism. The world is his oyster, here to be relinquished to him and his two trusted wingmen, Mercutio (Edo Wijnen) and Benvolio (Sem Sjouke).
Romeo is also a hopeless romantic. Always falling in love with someone or other. That is, until he meets his one true love, Juliet (Qian Liu) – in the Dutch version she is called Julia. Then he becomes a doomed romantic, something he, of course, doesn’t know. But we, the audience, do.
The music by Sergei Prokofiev, first performed in 1940, knows it, too. A constant sense of foreboding lingers just beneath the plangent violins, from the moment Romeo and Julia lay eyes on each other at the masked ball, hosted by Julia’s father, a Capulet (here: Cappuletti), who is embroiled in a bitter rivalry with the Montague clan (Montecchi), of which Romeo is a member.
Their first meeting is directly followed by the most dramatic – and best-known – musical piece in the ballet: The Dance of the Knights (the same music was also used for a perfume campaign in the 1990s). Narratively speaking, not that much is happening; the Capolettis are dancing, but from that moment on, for Romeo and Julia, nothing else matters. The die is cast, their fate is sealed.
The Dutch National Ballet uses a version of Romeo and Julia from 1967 made by the late Rudi van Dantzig, dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-artistic director of the Dutch national ballet company (from 1971 to 1991). While the luscious sets and decor by Toer van Schayk (whose Wayne Eagling co-production The Nutcracker and the Mouse King will be reprised this December) may feel slightly dated (but then again, the story is set in fifteenth century Verona), the choreography by Van Dantzig holds surprisingly well. Of course, Van Dantzig is helped by the most famous tragic love story of all time and by some of the greatest ballet music ever made.
Van Dantzig shows a real flair in the big folk scenes, played out in the central square, where nothing and no-one escapes his attention. There are little jokes in there as well, for example in the very first brawl between the Montecchis and the Capolettis, where the lords are fighting along as well, even though their heavily gilded swords are way too heavy to lift.
There are also some great psychological flourishes, especially in the rivalry between (and juxtaposition of) happy-go-lucky Mercutio and Tybalt (Jozef Varga), Julia’s irascible cousin. Mercutio is a real man of the people and dances with rambunctious street urchins and harlots (Floor Eimers, Nina Tonoli) alike, whereas Tybalt is a stuck-up aristocrat, all pent-up rage and hollow superiority (who knew ‘snooty’ would be a good look on principal Jozef Varga?). Their animosity reaches its apotheosis during their final sword fight (all fight scenes are choreographed by Van Schayk). Tybalt is all indignant fury, while Mercutio effortlessly flits and parries. It reminded me of the battle between Oberyn Martell and The Mountain in Game of Thrones, with a similar disastrous outcome.
Mercutio is fatally wounded, and then takes ages to die. But we give him a pass, because he is Mercutio (played with such spirit by Wijnen). Tybalt’s subsequent death, at the hands of Romeo, is mercifully quicker. Although his death does have a peculiar coda. Signora Capoletti (Vera Tsyganova), on seeing her dead cousin (her brother’s son), goes all wailing widow, wild hair and fainting spells and all. It does make you wonder: what was her relationship with Tybalt again?
On the other hand, if indeed there were amorous undertones between Tybalt and Signora Capoletti, could you blame her, seeing the way her husband (Anatole Babenko) reacts when women won’t automatically do his bidding?
Which brings us to Julia, played by Qian Liu. Liu started at the Dutch National Ballet in 2012 a member of the corps de ballet, and has been a principal dancer since 2016. Liu, as Julia, is a revelation. Lithe and wispy, she starts out childlike and bashful, hiding into her Nurse’s (Amanda Beck) skirts, unsure what to do with the attentions of her fiancée Paris (Cristiano Principato). But Romeo’s passion awakens something in her, first with a flutter, then with a bang. Julia transforms into a young, passionate woman in front of our eyes.
And in the third act, she turns out to be the more nuanced character of the two. After they have consummated their secret marriage, Romeo has to leave. He has been banned from Verona after murdering Tybalt. Still, Romeo sees only sunshine and lollypops. Julia is more apprehensive. She keeps clinging to his bared torso (at one time even draping herself around his neck like a shawl) as if she knows this will be the last time she ever sees him alive.
Liu’s pièce the résistance comes in the third act in two scenes: first there is her final brutal confrontation with her father, who demands that she marries Paris straight away, who, astonishingly, still wants to marry Julia, even though the sight of him brings her to tears (Take the hint, dude!). Then, there is the taking of the drug that will put her in a deathlike sleep. A gamut of emotions passes through her, from sullen to defiant, from distraught to hopeful, from fearful to purposeful as she is inevitably being pulled towards the potion. Just as with Mercutio, Julia takes her sweet time to (fake) die. It is one of the trickiest parts, one that could easily turn into slapstick. Yet Liu acts it with such heartfelt conviction, you can not be unmoved.
Qian Liu has not only stolen Romeo’s heart, she has stolen ours.
Seen: October 18, National Opera and Ballet, Amsterdam.