My ultimate night off is a trip to the ballet. Yesterday I treated myself to a spot close to the front at the Coliseum to see Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the young supernovas of the Bolshoi Ballet, in Sir Frederick Ashton's Romeo and Juliet. I sat near enough to hear Osipova breathe and to watch the rippling of Vasiliev's impressive leg muscles.
I've always been curious about this ballet. Ashton is a big favourite and this is one of his that I've never seen before, since it's not often done in London. It was created for the Royal Danish Ballet and apparently was bequeathed in Ashton's will to the dancer and director Peter Schaufuss, whose company was responsible for its nine-performance visit.
Here in the Big Smoke we're steeped in the Kenneth MacMillan version, and it's hard to forget about it while watching this very different, exceedingly condensed account. But while MacMillan's is a grand-scale company piece, full of dazzling solo spots and set pieces for the corps de ballet, Ashton extracts the essence of Shakespeare's poetry and focuses on nothing else - as if Romeo and Juliet has become a Shakespeare sonnet. The corps - or the few couples representing it - have little to do; the ballroom scene looks more like a preamble to a family dinner party; and the lovers are dead at 9.30pm, by which time (if I remember rightly) Covent Garden has usually just killed off Tybalt. Having so said, I've no idea whether or not this was precisely Ashton's original or if it has been further truncated for this run (other reviewers have suggested so).
Osipova and Vasiliev aren't natural Ashtonians, and the surrounding Danes proved interesting company in every sense: while it seemed that the Bolshoi pair were making a great effort to rein in their natural athleticism and immense technical prowess to suit Ashton's poetic restraint, the bouncy and lyrical Danes let rip. Alban Lendorf of the Royal Danish Ballet brought the house down as Mercutio: as in Shakespeare, it's more of a character role than the moony Romeo, and Lendorf's acting ability had the chance to exceed that of his star colleague. Dancing next to Vasiliev in purely technical terms must be a huge challenge, too, and Lendorf met it at literally every turn. Showpieces for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio found Vasiliev giving us those glorious leaps and his magically controlled spins that flower into slow motion at the end, but Lendorf's multiple whirls (wonderfully on-the-spot) would put many Odiles to shame; and Robin Bernardet as Benvolio offered seriously dazzling footwork.
Their Tybalt, Johan Christensen, was a renegade Goth type, a problem child with a major anger management problem; slightly hard to believe in Lady Capulet's passion for him, but his sword fights are magnetic and that roll down the steps when Romeo kills him must be jolly painful. Super support, too, from Schaufuss himself as Friar Laurence; and his daughter, Tara, had a lively and tender solo spot as Mercutio's girlfriend.
But it was Osipova's show. She's an astounding dance actress, growing before our eyes from teasing child to awakening woman, from furious teenager to desperate and decisive suicide, making every high-set developee and every last pas de bourree into an expression of character. At times I nearly feared for Vasiliev, since his Juliet outacted him and his Mercutio nearly stole his limelight.
On balance, though (pun unintended), I don't think he needs to worry. What a gorgeous pair they are, these two real-life lovers: magnetic, flexible, passionate, all-giving artists in the grand sense of which the Bolshoi tradition has never lost sight, and imbued with a charisma that makes it physically impossible to glance away while they're on stage. Never mind the production's shortcomings in terms of lighting/sets/costumes: this was a night to remember.
More previews from the Peter Schaufuss Ballet's run-up to the run here: