Alexei Ratmansky wants to reignite Romeo and Juliet’s spark

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Here are things you will not see in choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” for the National Ballet of Canada:

A color-coded corps de ballet that unsubtly designates the camps of the Capulets and the Montagues;


Lady Capulet lusting after her nephew Tybalt;

Mercutio in love with Romeo (“They are not!” says the choreographer);

A drugged, unconscious Juliet striking beautiful ballet poses as she is hauled around by Romeo in the final tomb scene.

Ratmansky abhors ballet clichés.

“Another thing I knew I didn’t want was Romeo and Juliet in bed in their tights and ballet shoes pretending they are naked,” says Ratmansky.

Beyond that, the production of the Shakespeare classic, which premiered in Toronto in 2011 and is set to Sergei Prokofiev’s epochal Russian score, offers other distinctions.

“It’s Ratmansky that makes it unique,” says National Ballet of Canada’s artistic director, Karen Kain. “It’s extremely physicalized, which is a much more contemporary way to tell a story in this day and age. I really think it’s a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for ballet dancers of today.”

The 45-year-old Russian choreographer, who has created numerous story and non-narrative ballets, tends to mesh the dancing, acting and frenzied swordplay, depicted against Verona’s blood-red edifices. He crafts his work for the athletic dancers of this generation, jettisoning much of the mime and empty spaces that historically characterize most productions of “Romeo and Juliet.”

“I wanted to give all of the characters some real dancing,” says Ratmansky. “I concentrated on making classical steps look spontaneous and motivated and worked on the upper body expressiveness. When Romeo and Juliet danced together, I wanted them to look at each other as much as their partnering permitted,” minimizing action that plays to the audience.


The production appears at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion July 10-13.

Ratmansky served as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet from 2004 to 2008. The Russian institution’s entrenched politics, which culminated in 2013 with an acid attack on the current director, Sergei Filin, drove him away to healthier havens of creativity. He is now arguably the world’s most coveted ballet choreographer and is American Ballet Theatre’s resident artist.

When Kain, a former prima ballerina with Canada’s National Ballet, assumed the directorship of the troupe in 2005, she contacted Ratmansky about choreographing Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers for her company.

“I never planned to make a new ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but could not resist when Karen asked me to,” says Ratmansky. “It’s such a rare opportunity to be able to create a new full-length ballet of such a well-known and beloved story, as many ballet companies have their own version that they perform.”

Kain says she considered Ratmansky an ideal fit for the job because his work extends the depth, breadth and meaning of classical ballet vocabulary.

“He’s not throwing out the classical form or background — he’s just taking it further,” says Kain. “I feel about him the way people must have thought about what Balanchine did for ballet: taking it beyond the big Russian classics to make it more modern. Ratmansky has tradition running through his blood, but he’s a young, modern man, and he’s pushing classical dance forward.”

Guillaume Côté, who created the role of Romeo and will dance it in Los Angeles, says that no choreography is wasted in Ratmansky’s creations. “Every step builds to another step, and it makes people’s hearts flutter because of the anticipation of what’s coming next,” he says.


“The balcony pas de deux has this exquisite sequence of steps like butter, so organic with a melodic counterpoint between the two lovers, and yet it’s incredibly difficult.”

Innovation notwithstanding, Prokofiev’s score, originally written for St. Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet), lays out the scene-by-scene trajectory of the plot. Leonid Lavrovsky choreographed the premiere performance for legendary ballerina Galina Ulanova as Juliet with Konstantin Sergeyev as her Romeo.

Prokofiev finished writing the music in 1935, but the realization of its staging took a bumpy path. Political turmoil, Prokofiev’s reputation as an “experimental” composer and the desire by some bureaucrats to paste a happy ending onto the story delayed the Kirov premiere until 1940.

Another complication ensued when the dancers didn’t immediately take to the music. In a 1940 diary entry, Ulanova wrote, “Work on Romeo was difficult. We didn’t immediately feel Prokofiev’s music. To begin with, it seemed to us to be undanceable, awkward. One even had to count in order not to miss a bar.”

When “Romeo and Juliet” finally made it to the stage, Ulanova quipped, “Never was a story of more woe than this of Prokofiev and his Romeo.”

Nonetheless, the ballet scored a huge success, particularly after the 1946 Bolshoi production with Lavrovsky’s choreography (also starring Ulanova), which became the prototype for all subsequent versions. The most famous of those include Frederick Ashton’s reserved interpretation in 1955, Kenneth MacMillan’s and John Cranko’s virtuosic renderings in the 1960s and Peter Martins’ no-frills version for New York City Ballet in 2007. (National Ballet of Canada had danced the Cranko production since 1964.)


“I love the music,” says Ratmansky. “It’s like you jump in a very fast stream, and it carries you on. The dramatic structure of the score is amazing. I didn’t want to cut or rearrange the music,” although he did trim a bit of the score in the final scene.

Prokofiev’s score, including its brass dissonances and ostentatious orchestration (incorporating solo tenor saxophone, cornet, viola d’amore and mandolins), seems so familiar now that it’s hard to separate the ballet from the music.

“The composition you hear is true to the irony you see in the play,” says Elena Lobsanova, who was Ratmansky’s original Juliet and will dance the role at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.” There is a contradiction between the idiosyncrasies and the melody and between the hard parts and the beautiful parts you hear. The contrast makes you trust it because it’s very real.”

For Côté, the score has a gravity, a sense of universal wisdom. “It has a beautiful undertone of depth, a foreshadowing of the importance of the story. Prokofiev’s harmony and melody create a thematic development, so that each character has its own theme,” he says.

The live orchestra, composed of local musicians, will be conducted by the National Ballet’s principal conductor, David Briskin.

To establish the balance between earthiness and poetry, designer Richard Hudson, who won a Tony Award for his vibrant sets for the Broadway production of “The Lion King,” took his inspiration from the early Renaissance, particularly 15th century Italian frescoes. With authentic patterns and colors for the fabrics, hats, headdresses and cloaks, the ballet’s images of Verona seem to emerge from paintings by Domenico Ghirlandaio.


According to Kain, this “Romeo and Juliet” is full of artistic surprises. Unlike typical renditions, Ratmansky chose not to have Juliet sit on her bed after Romeo leaves and ponder her dilemma to the swell of some of Prokofiev’s most dramatic music. Instead, Ratmansky inserts a dream sequence with a full corps de ballet, in which Romeo and Juliet try to reach each other. “That was a revelation,” says Kain. “I never imagined the music being used that way.”

And in the final scene, says Ratmansky, “I wanted to conclude the ballet, as in the Shakespeare play, with two forgiving families standing over the corpses of their children, which is also part of the score.”

All of which reflects Ratmansky’s intention in relating the story. “I want to tell it honestly and make it feel fresh and new — the same story but told using fresh images, fresh voices,” he says. “I’m hoping that the audience will be moved by what they see.”

For the record, 12:23 pm July 7: An early version of this story identified the character of Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet” as Lady Capulet’s son.