Royal NZ Ballet takes a lovers leap with Romeo and Juliet

by Francesca Horsley / 12 August, 2017

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Madeleine Graham and Joseph Skelton as Romeo and Juliet.

Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers are determined to make every step count in a new production of Romeo and Juliet.

Choreographer Francesco Ventriglia grew up watching celebrated Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic Romeo and Juliet “a thousand times. It was a big inspiration. I have dreamed of choreographing Romeo and Juliet for many, many years, but I was never brave enough.”

Now he has created his own version of the star-crossed lovers for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. “When I was a young dancer at La Scala, I saw Zeffirelli directing opera productions and I admired the way he told the story. He was always so precise, so clean, beautiful and poetic. His movie represents very much my world and the imagination I have for Romeo and Juliet.”

It’s regarded as the quintessential romantic love story, but Ventriglia says it’s also about hate: “The political hate between the families of Verona, the Capulets and Montagues. The Capulets are for the Pope and the money of the church, and Montagues are for the Prince of Verona. That’s why I decided to put this huge church in the square for the set. Everything happens in the square because of the church’s political power at that time.”

choreographer Francesco Ventriglia. Photo/Ross Brown

The ballet is set to a 1935 score by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, who decided to create a happy ending – it wasn’t performed. A revised version restored Shakespeare’s tragic climax, premiering at the Kirov Theatre in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1940 to critical acclaim.

Ventriglia says the score is melodic and the main characters have their own theme. “You can easily find the connection between Shakespeare’s text and the music. In the bedroom pas de deux, you can really feel that Romeo needs to go but doesn’t want to. Prokofiev was Russian – they have double the passion of Italians.”

Joseph Skelton, the lead dancer for Romeo, agrees the music drives the action. “There is so much in it; you hear the story just listening to the score. It has such a bearing on your emotions that you have to let the music pull you along.”

In Ventriglia’s interpretation, Juliet is a pivotal character. “It is incredible that she is only 14 years old and she organises everything from her bedroom. She is a strong woman – probably the first feminist in history. Why should she marry this guy [Paris]? She doesn’t want to marry someone just because the law says a girl should marry who the father says – she wants to be free.”

Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet.

RNZB dancer Madeleine Graham, Ventriglia’s muse for Juliet, says “she is very sure of what she wants and almost always instigates the encounters with Romeo. She is playful because she is so young, but she grows into a woman and feels what love is.” Graham says she has studied Zeffirelli’s leading lady, Olivia Hussey, incorporating some of her mannerisms and movements.

The character of Mercutio, Romeo’s friend, has a more serious interpretation. Massimo Margaria, who dances the role, says, “For Francesco, Mercutio is someone really smart and not a joker. The choreography is really sharp, fast. In this version, you have to think a little bit more – it is really easy to become what he is not; it is not enough to be funny and try to fight with everyone. He is complex.”

Ventriglia is working with a dramaturg for the first time, unusual for ballet choreographers. “It obliges me to have a reason for every single movement, step or transition. This is a big challenge, because when creating a ballet like Romeo and Juliet, it is hard not to fall in love with the beauty of the steps on the music.”

Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet.

“He asks, ‘What are you actually telling me with these steps? Why do you do another leap there, Francesco? Where is the reason in the script?’ So this is a big challenge for a choreographer, because obviously it is easier just to build beautiful movement on the right music. But this is not enough to tell a story – it is not enough to touch the soul of other people and not enough to pay a tribute to Shakespeare.”

He shares these insights with the dancers, who welcome the extra information. “The work is a creation from them, so it is an empathetic exchange. It’s great because I can feel their energy, their bodies, and I tailor every single step. I give them something and they give me something back. I try to use their personal experience. I push them to be real – ‘be yourself; act, react as you would react in your real life’.”

Although hate destroys the young lovers, Ventriglia believes Romeo and Juliet is about love. “At the end of the story, these two fathers, Lord Montague and Lord Capulet, look each other in the eyes in front their kids who have just died and realise that this hate is punished by God through love. We could all take one step back and put a value on love. We need to care about love, and not hate, basically.”

Romeo and Juliet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, national tour, August 16-September 24.

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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