Graeme Murphy Choreographs a New Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet

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Adam Bull as Romeo and Lana Jones as Juliet in Graeme Murphy's Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Adam Bull as Romeo and Lana Jones as Juliet in Graeme Murphy's Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Romeo & Juliet
Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre: 7 December 2011, 1.30 pm
continues in Sydney until 21 December

Choreography – Graeme Murphy
Creative associate – Janet Vernon
Music – Sergei Prokofiev
Costume design – Akira Isogawa
Set design – Gerard Manion
Lighting design – Damien Cooper
Projection design – Jason Lam

Conductor – Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo
The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

Juliet – Leanne Stojmenov
Romeo – Daniel Gaudiello
Mercutio – Yosvani Ramos
Tybalt – Chengwu Guo
Benvolio – Calvin Hannaford
Lord Capulet – Damien Welch
Lady Capulet – Rachel Rawlins
Lord Montague – John-Paul Idaszak
Lady Montague – Alice Topp
Prince of Darkness – Andrew Wright
Prince of Peace – Garry Stocks
Nurse – Elizabeth Hill
Paris – Ben Davis
Holy Man – Jarryd Madden

William Shakespeare, though he did not of course invent all his stories, rather drawing them from history or myth, makes them seem like his in his vivid tellings. His characters gain real personalities by virtue of the dense poetry but also from their actions and behavior in the plays and the strong linkages of cause, motivation, effect, imagery and expressive action from foot to foot, line to line, scene to scene and act to act give the plays strong coherence through the internal logics, whether ‘real’, poetical, linguistic or dramatic. In a phrase, he had a sense of theater, he magically created real worlds, not just existing in his private imagination, but in seemingly solid words and acting which create in the theater believable atmospheres of battle, or forest serene or sinister, or anything else from any part of the world. Perhaps most of all the stories we grant Shakespeare possession of that of Romeo and Juliet. Ballet has a history of borrowing Shakespeare’s pieces, though it may seem self-defeating to leave the Bard’s words and take only the story, many are successful as theater in their own right, perhaps because they avoid a direct translation into mime and movement rather taking across the essence of their drama and characters. Of the plays, Romeo and Juliet is maybe the most often transferred to the ballet, with such a myriad of versions in the 20th Century, starting with the 1926 Diaghilev-Kochno version with choreography by Nijinska, music by Constant Lambert, featuring Karsavina and Lifar, then the 1940 Prokofiev-Lavrovsky Kirov version with Galina Ulanova, which was revived and reinterpreted after the war, brought to the West, filmed and performed many times. Frederick Ashton choreographed his own version with the Prokofiev score in 1955, as did John Cranko in 1958, Kenneth Macmillan in 1965, Rudi von Dantzig in Amsterdam in 1967, Birgit Cullberg in Stockholm in 1969, Oleg Vinogradov in Leningrad in 1973, Nureyev in 1977, and many more since then. Antony Tudor choreographed a one act version to music by Delius in New York in 1943 and Maurice Béjart choreographed a version to Berlioz’ music in 1966, which is said to be pacifist in spirit and sympathetic to the attitude of the soon-to-be 1968 protests.[1] Is it any wonder the balletic Romeo and Juliet is a phenomenon of the 20th (and 21st) Century, following on each of the bloodiest wars? Not enough seem to be listening and we certainly are overdue for some pacifism now. With that impressive list of famous 20th Century choreographers, it has come to the point that it is the ballet all choreographers seem to have to attempt, as the role of Giselle is to ballerinas, and given all that plus the memory of Shakespeare’s poetry, expectations are extremely high.

Graeme Murphy, perhaps the best known Australian choreographer, and perhaps the most popular considering this new production’s whole Sydney run sold out weeks ago (though partly this is due to the popularity of the story), having remade many of the classic classical and modern ballets, not to mention many opera productions, was commissioned by the Australian Ballet to create this new Romeo and Juliet and they seemed to have given him a very free rein and budget. Fashion designer Akira Isogawa was hired to create the costumes and a great many extravagant and detailed costumes there are for each character, thanks to a special grant. The sets do not hold back either, there are many and they are large, three dimensional, climbable, elaborate and detailed. Murphy says “This timeless tale is in fact a tale for ALL times. LOVE transforms and transcends, opening a door to reveal a different world, where time bends and stretches and landscapes appear both familiar and foreign.” But I think Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet very much belongs to the Italian Renaissance. It depicts a youthful humanity perfecting the art of living, still a work in progress. Their blood runs warm and they live intensely not leaving a stone unturned or repressing any passion, curiosity or desire. In the end Romeo and Juliet’s hot blood is at least enough to clear their parents’ hatred and leave them reconciled.

Murphy for his timeless, spaceless tale leaps from scene to scene from epoch to epoch, continent to continent, culture to culture, sometimes mixing times and cultures within a single scene. But these deliberate incongruencies seemed randomly generated and the cultural styles were stereotyped so I did not feel any deep connection between the leaps in décors and what was expressed by the dancers, unless insofar as the choreography too went through discontinuous changes in style, sometimes classical, sometimes “contemporary”, some single dancers’ solos segmented and discontinuous in expression. The effect was jarring and ridiculous like a poem with mixed metaphors, or a malapropism, and the ballet never created for us an absorbing world of its own. Murphy’s style here tries to use the whole of the dancers’ bodies and all levels, from dragging on the floor to overhead lifts. It is commendable and interesting to try to take imaginative scope to the entire body’s full range of possible movement, but Murphy seems to want to fill the music with movement whether needed or not. Each movement in a ballet must fulfill some need, even if merely to ‘work’ in a mysterious way at that moment in the ballet on the character. Murphy’s choreography here seemed more like the ballet equivalent of an arbitrary kind of total serialist composition in music, spanning all possibilities and fulfilling these imposed rules, but without overarching form, in the language of ballet choreography this form would be locally the personality of the dancing character within the music and within the drama. The result is also very athletic, but often very awkward looking on a human body, and so very difficult to dance, leaving little chance for acting. This also ruins the drama’s pacing and the acting’s timing because the characters have to rush through the actions of each scene. I’ve seen other choreographers, Stephen Baynes for example, able to say so much more with fewer and simpler movements without resorting to explicitness, using repose expressively as well as movement while not requiring very much in the way of décors.

The extravagance and expense of this production has only gotten in the way of the drama. Rather than magically creating a believable world with real characters in a real love affair, the sets say “look at me,” and the lovers are not deep enough characters to be convincing or even likable, they end up shallow people in a computer game world of shiny environments rapidly rolling by. There is also digital video projection with all this, sometimes very jerkily animated and clunky-looking so as not to integrate well, and sometimes also very twee — the video in the short BodyTorque pieces the Australian Ballet performed in May was of much better quality. The effect might be entertaining as spectacle, except the Disney-like whimsy in the sets and movement were ingratiating and became irritating. The ballet seemed to play up whimsical aspects of the music which I never heard in it before, being more inclined to take Prokofiev’s music seriously. The orchestra played very well for at least the first half, though not with their usual delicate nuance, but there was a serious problem in the second act when the orchestra was electronically amplified (see below).

All the dancers did a fine job of work with the difficult choreography, attaining even a moment’s grace at times and doing their usual highly professional work. There were some problems with the acting, perhaps not surprising given the limited scope for the imagination. The individual elements of the sets and costumes very mostly very well-constructed, presumably an accurate realization of Gerard Manion’s designs, even if all together the effect didn’t work. Perhaps it is a case of an artist without any limits or restrictions failing to be self-restrained. It is a risky business and failure does happen, though it is still surprising coming from the Australian Ballet which has created such top caliber art so consistently through the last year and more. It is just such a shame the amount of money and work by so many artists was consumed in a piece which didn’t come close to the company’s usual standards. The company’s excellent resident choreographers Stephen Baynes and Stanton Welch, who were not given the chance to create any new ballets this year, would have been more deserving.

The ballet begins with a short prelude: Romeo and Juliet stand together in a white Baroque half clamshell, backed by odd purple-blue light, which is suddenly pulled apart. In the first scene we see a set evocative of a medieval European castle with a stone wall with arches cut into it, dejected peasants and market sellers lying about on the ground or against the wall. Then in the processional entrance of the Capulets in stylized medieval costume — the men partly in armor, the women in colorful trailing gowns, slimly cut, they skip on breezily. The Montagues then enter but their costumes are closer to feudal Japan, again the men in armor but here tightly bound, winged-shouldered bamboo armor. They immediately fight, starting with the Ladies Montague and Capulet — it seems the women here are not innocent, perhaps even prime instigators of the fighting. They have at each other as if they have something to prove. Whereas the men all have swords the women fight bare-handed, approaching with bent arms and body, distorted, palms facing out in a vaguely rude gesture — showing the palms, considered rude, was something to be avoided in classical ballet. They grip and pull at one another in a catish way, but too stylized to be really vicious or disturbing. The men, half a dozen pairs or so, fight with foils, clinking in unison, the fencing very controlled and formal, making the fight look phony. They part and two heavily armored men fight slowly with BIG swords, with accompanying anvil clinks which unfortunately clash with the music. The others come back with foils. The dynamics of the dancers in the background, some distant Capulet and Montague cousins, some peasants caught in the fray, were more successful, giving a stronger sense of surging chaos and violence, but when stuffed dummies started falling from the second tier of the set and were chucked around, it spoiled the effect. The scene ends with a Petipa-esque pyramid centered on the stage and the “Prince of Peace”, in lieu of the Prince of Verona, all in white, breaking up the fight. The “Prince of Darkness” is around too, a sort of vampire in a black suit with a high collar rising up above his ears and blank white eyes, a bit too much of a stereotypical goth or fantasy-genre cliché to be really sinister or chilling.

The ballet follows the main scenes of the play in sequence, but with some details left out and the characters never seem as deep. There is the scene in Juliet’s bedroom, where her nurse pokes and prods after bringing in her ball gown and then rehearses her in her curtseys to boys. The set has a long wall painted a streaky gray-mauve, blank except for a bed and window to the balcony, with gothic arches over both and painted pink flowers arching over the head of the bed. Her parents introduce her to Paris. Murphy gives Paris quite classical choreography and Ben Davis dances very expressively and interestingly with high nobility and grace, but also his deeper interest in the character shows: a man with maturity and personality. In this way he was more interesting than the Romeo character. Juliet has many solo dances in the first act, especially long ones in the bedroom and in one of the scene changes. She moves about lightly, skippingly, often her wrists’ lines are broken in her port à bras and she grins most of the time. Leanne Stojmenov’s arabesque and pirouettes are very strong and have a certain buoyancy and grace. But the overall effect is overly pretty and girly. Rather than a youthful but strong, serious, young woman, she is a very young, immature Juliet, as stereotypically girly as Romeo (though not as much so as his friends) is boyish. Stojmenov is a strong dancer, though perhaps not a natural actor, and she could convey great power in her dancing. Later in the piece, her choreography becomes more athletic, gymnastic, with terrifying feats of balancing and strength, which she takes in her stride and executes ably, but still this choreography looks awkward on a human body and doesn’t speak to me of any personality.

While the scene is changed to the ballroom, a black wall comes down over which stately Capulet guest walk by in elaborate, almost sculptural costumes recalling the armor of the first scene. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, come on running, joking and kidding around like young boys. When the black wall rises and emerald-purple fantasy ballroom is revealed. The set has great detail, even if the light is low and mist covers the stage, and painted, built and assembled with skill, but the overall effect of the design, especially after the mixed medievalism, seems too much like something from a schlocky fantasy novel — and schlocky fantasy novels are fine in their place — but here it is too trite and doesn’t fit with the deep humanity of the story. The immature, childish cavorting of Romeo & Co. in these Act I scenes make the effect still less serious. Romeo and his friends play with some young Capulet girls, rolling and spinning on large upright lamps on wheels with crystalline amethyst lamp shades on top. They swing these lamps, whimsically giving the girls rides in time with the swing of the melody of the music.

Artists of the Australian Ballet dance the Capulet ball in Graeme Murphy's Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Artists of the Australian Ballet dance the Capulet ball in Graeme Murphy's Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Jeff Busby.

The ball proper has all the Capulets dance with their women-folk. The men still have their pointy-shouldered armor-like costumes while the women wear long gowns in purples and blues and emerald colors, with small capes around their shoulders, the fabric of which, though still flexible, is studded with many small spikes like an echidna’s coat. Their dancing is sinister in the way the men grip the women at the back of the neck, restraining their movement awkwardly while bending them and leaning them. Murphy exploits natural human feelings of vulnerability over certain parts of the body — the neck and the back of the heel for example. Whereas in the play Capulet wants only a festive party, defusing Tybalt and letting Romeo go about in disguise even after he is found out, here all the Capulets are unrelentingly warlike, more like beasts than humans, giving a single tone to the long, important scene. Here when Romeo and his gang are found out, Capulet handles him as if to take him prisoner or execute him. But Mercutio’s puerile larks, running about, ducking between Tybalt’s legs, bagging his head in his own cloak, etc., free them.

The Balcony Scene is more stereotypical Renaissance Verona, with plaster coming off the brickwork here and there, romanesque arches and filigree iron work with vine-roses growing over it, into the shape of a cross in the center. There are more larks with Romeo falling off the courtyard wall, pulling down ivy, hiding from Nurse by posing as a statue in a nook, bicep flexed. Murphy fills every moment and every note of music. He favors for Romeo something more of a “contemporary dance” style, using the floor, using the whole body, all the joints, bending torso, revolving hips, in their full range of motion. So Romeo drops tumbling, folding inward from his shoulders, crouching, to rising and open up again in more generous leaping, free movements, expressive of an obvious kind of dumb pain and passion, but not much more, though Daniel Gaudiello kept up with the changes confidently. Though the choreography fills the ballet’s scenes with steps and movement, it is not continuous but broken into segments. I felt no continuous flow or chain to these phrases of movement, neither physical nor emotional nor poetical nor at any other level. When really concentrating on the choreography alone, sometimes it seemed to be starting to go somewhere, but then it would stop and a new unrelated segment of movements would begin and this reflected and added to the jumpy, random meaninglessness of the design’s scene changes. When partnering each other, Romeo always seemed to be keeping Juliet in check with a very strong grip which seemed stifling, despite the obvious strength of Stojmenov who certainly could have held the positions on her own or with the usual less obtrusive support of the partner. This developed into swings and drags of the woman partner. This was of course the choreography rather than Gaudiello’s style of partnering. The lovers’ contact was coarse and excessive, reminding one of the Capulet style of ballroom dancing when costume and character should have set them above the petty violence and warmongering. The contact was more grabbing and possessive than loving. The video projections also belittles this scene: a projected moon in the corner appears, and dissolves in a pixellated shower of dust as they embrace. At the end the set is whisked away and crystal stars on strings drop from the roof, one of which Romeo plucks and holds out to Juliet.

After the balcony scene, Romeo roams the streets. A stone bridge drops down from the rafters and he meets up with his friends again. In a delirious, psychedelic fashion they enter the stage on a rowboat sliding through the bridge’s arch while Romeo stands in the “river.” Monks in buddhist turmeric robes glide in and out of the bridge’s arches, but then Nurse rides on in a 1940’s era bike. She is followed by five other bikes, the riders in Gestapo black and gray, though they are friendly enough as it turns out. The dancers ride with excellent bike-handling skills, pedaling around in a circle and threading through the tight spaces under the bridge and between each other and the dancers on foot, which would have been a remarkable effect in another context, but is lost in the nonsensical wild irrationality of the scene. Compare this to the bike riding scene in Maurice Béjart’s Nutcracker, where it works much more effectively to recall wartime Marseille. It’s fine to have fantasy, magic, fairies, sylphs, hallucinations, visions or what have you but when the imagery has no internal logic or sense or poetic cohesion it fails to suspend disbelief, let alone to create a real, immersive sub-world in the theater. Even the most bizarre outpourings of the unconscious mind have some sense, however faint and however little understood by psychologists. Following are extended exploits of Mercutio, though his act is hyperactive to the point that it implies attention deficit, either in the character or assumed of the audience. Circus-like he rides on the back of a bike, takes a baguette between his teeth, then wallops Nurse on the rear end with the loaf as he goes by, he break dances, he hits his head on the bridge, he gestures with Romeo as if trying to be cool, but generally it is banal. The great coordination of the dancers and energy and change-ups required of Yosvani Ramos (though his acting is forced here) is wasted, and the effect is a further dumbing down.

Another scene change takes us to a stylized shinto or Japanese Buddhist shrine. On a backdrop, the outline of a Japanese temple is painted in black lines. The monks, now in black, line up and the blandly-named “Holy Man”, bald and dressed in a long oatmeal colored robe dances slowly with Juliet, she stands on his feet like a small girl dancing with her father at a wedding. The marriage takes place in a sort of split mobile moongate on wheels, mirrored on the inside, Romeo and Juliet stand in the separate halves. The monks push them to and fro eventually joining the circle under a bright orange light. There is some spectacle here but it all feels very shallow and arbitrary, like tourists visiting Japan on holiday, able to enjoy no more than the exotic, strange spectacle. I felt detached from the scene, feeling none of the deep emotion and spiritual truth which it ought to have. The gestures are novel in a way, but also gimmicky and banal, for example, the lovers’ linking fingers in Buddha’s gesture of touching thumb and forefinger, or the monks’ holding their arms out from behind the couple in their moongate like a many-armed Buddha. It was more obvious than deep.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Act II, after the intermission, brings us to India. The street scene’s facades look computer-designed in the foreground and there is a slightly blurred Taj Mahal in the background. The corps de ballets fill the set — there is very little room left with all the set’s accoutrements — and they are dressed in near-fluorescent yellow, pink, orange and green in long skirts and tightly-fitted tops. The corps danced with verve, making the most of the obvious choreography, and each had individuality in their style, nearly enough to begin to make a convincing city street scene, but the set was too oppressive and artificial, and after this initial dance they stayed mostly static because there was no room left on the stage for any milling or acting once the main characters came on. Also loud jangling bells, like ankle bells, though no one seemed to be wearing any, clashed with the music. Lord and Lady Capulet are now Maharaja and consort, entering with a small boy who comes from nowhere and disappears soon after. The scene isn’t convincing or enveloping enough to evoke oppressively hot weather, so it is more that Mercutio and Romeo pick the fight with Tybalt out of boredom. The fight runs all over the stage, pausing with Mercutio’s stabbing as projected animated storm clouds roll in jerkily above. Romeo and Benvolio are grieved and distraught. The Prince of Dark returns and dances with Mercutio, reanimating his corpse for a moment. Mercutio wears a blank smile, as if he’s on a fun ride, eventually looking more nauseated than pleased before the Dark Prince drops him limp. Romeo fights Tybalt, stabbing him as he crashes through the second tier balustrade, Tybalt falling backwards on to a tented bed below, an unnecessary risk to Chengwu Guo’s health for a little spectacle. The Prince of Peace arrives, sternly directing Romeo to leave.

Next the Bedroom Scene, but while the set is changed, a black fabric screen comes down across which Romeo moves with the Prince of Darkness mirroring on the other side. A projected cloud, jerkily animated, expands and dissipates. The black screen rises to reveal Juliet’s bedroom and first the Holy Man undresses her and helps her into her nightgown. Romeo comes in the window and it all ends in a rush as if there was not quite enough music, which is more than filled with movement: Romeo comes in from the balcony — they quickly dance together toward the bed — they undress down to their dancer’s underwear (again difficult to suspend disbelief) — they don’t make love but rather have sex in a bland Hollywood style, feet facing audience, turning and rolling on the bed — Romeo hops out on the last roll and moves to the orange-glowing curtain; it’s dawn — he leaps out with a peck for Juliet.

The mandolin solo in this scene was amplified with a microphone on the theater PA system because it would have been inaudible on its own from inside the deep orchestra pit with its narrow opening. But why couldn’t the mandolinist play onstage? Any subtlety in the delicate solo was lost, but, more disturbing, the microphone seems to have been left on because the orchestra for the rest of the ballet started coming through the speakers amplified, especially the cellos and basses, making a mess of the hitherto fine playing, with a very loud rumbly sound. This was unusually unprofessional and I could have cried at the unnecessary distortion of the orchestra and ruining of the music.

Juliet gets the phial of sleeping potion from the Holy Man. At this point there doesn’t seem to be enough time for the black wall to come down between all the scene changes, so the sets are sometimes pulled before our eyes. The Holy Man dances with her again in a way more gimmicky than bizarre: he lies on his back and lifts her up with one foot under her knee and the other under her armpit, very acrobatic, but unexpressive. The phial he gives her has a very bright acidic green light in it. We go back to Juliet’s bedroom and Paris comes in with Juliet’s parents, he tries to dance with her but Juliet is repulsed by the idea, so he turns his back, fed up. We get to see Damien Welch dance as Lord Capulet, whose pace and timing is just right for the scene, an island of expressive dancing with power and anger in the otherwise rushed scenes. As Juliet drinks the potion, the lights go out, leaving just the glowing green phial on rolling the floor.

The final scene change is hidden by the black wall. The Prince of Darkness pulls a cart decked with flowers like a hearse while a monk comes with the note for Romeo from the other direction. The Prince follows behind and kills him with a touch, leaving the body to drop into the cart and he wheels it off.

The final ‘Crypt’ Scene takes place in the desert. There are a few humped orange sand dunes with unlikely angles of repose under a shred of blue sky projected onto the back wall. The orange-yellow lighting darkens to brown as a video sandstorm blows by on the projection, Juliet’s funeral procession huddling for shelter. Juliet is carried on a bier made of hundreds of skulls, which must have been painstaking to build and paint. She is laid down near the front of the stage. There is a realistic skeleton lying at one side in the sand. The crypt imagery, very much a European, high latitude phenomenon, clashes with the desert where corpses don’t decompose and in turn jars with the previous scenes, as if picked at random. Lord and Lady Capulet are in dirty black suits, the Lady — a small role which wastes Rachel Rawlins’ talents — carrying her high-heels, but aren’t given much time to act or do any more than kneel at the bier before they have to make way for Romeo. Paris likewise has so little time to do anything with this scene that it is easy to miss his entry completely before Romeo rushes onto the stage and thoughtlessly dispatches him. Romeo lifts up the unconscious Juliet and swings her about, finally poisoning himself. Juliet wakes up on the bier and Stojmenov doesn’t use the few moments to express much convincing horror or courage or grief over her situation, though there isn’t much scope to do so, and she stabs herself and falls on Romeo’s corpse. There is very little to feel here. With their first curtain call Romeo and Juliet stand together again in a patterned colored spotlight embracing, as if in some banal heaven.

But besides that, the Australian Ballet has had a truly remarkable season this year. They have been creating and performing works of total theater with keen attention for every aspect of the art-form, in both the short and full-length formats. The fascinating and difficult Madame Butterfly and the “British Liaisons” pieces, Checkmate, Concerto and After the Rain, for example, show a company dancing with world-class technique in their own unique style, in a very close collaboration with their musicians and artists, in what seems to be a healthy atmosphere with high morale. They also have some good actors, which is fundamentally important to theater, all this coming together into a wonderful whole in their incredible performance of The Merry Widow. This bodes extremely well for next year’s 50th anniversary season.

[1] Arnoldo Mondadori, ed., Phaidon Book of the Ballet, 1980.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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