‘Romeo and Juliet’. The Australian Ballet

This is an expanded version of my review first published in The Canberra Times, 17 September 2011, p. 30 under the title ‘Fluid postmodern take on a classic’.

13 September 2011, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

In an interview published in the September issue of the Qantas inflight magazine, choreographer Graeme Murphy said of his new production of Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet that we should ‘bring a lifeboat’. Well he had a point because this production, which had its world premiere in Melbourne on 13 September, is a very fluid one indeed. It opens in a town setting, which could be Verona at the time Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is set. But over the course of the evening the location and the era change wildly. We see the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in Japan, the killing of Tybalt and Mercutio in India and the mourning of Juliet in a harsh, blood red desert setting. The characters ride bikes in one scene. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio find themselves in a row boat in another. And more.

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet is quintessentially postmodern. It has moments of humour and irony. It is filled with allusions to all kinds of cultural objects and issues—devotees of the Hare Krishna movement even make an appearance. Murphy also references himself and his work through some choreographic moments that look back to the vintage days of Sydney Dance Company. The scene in which Juliet receives a potion to induce a death-like sleep, when six black clad figures support Juliet in expansive swooping and flying movements, is just one example of this glance back at previous choreography.

Murphy also incorporates fabric into the choreography and the production overall. And while on this occasion his costume designer, Akira Isogawa, may well have had a strong input into how fabric has been used, Murphy has been playing with lengths of cloth and curtains of fabric throughout his choreographic career. One of the most dramatic uses of fabric in Romeo and Juliet occurs when a bolt of scarlet silk, initially resting amongst other rolls of fabric on the side of the stage in the Indian market place, unwinds and streams across the stage as the Capulets and the Montagues engage in their bloody feud.

This Romeo and Juliet is a collage of ideas playfully deconstructed and the remarkable thing is that it works. Everyone knows the story and Murphy has assumed this familiarity with the plot and has pursued a vision for a work that is like no other that the Australian Ballet has ever presented.

On opening night Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson as Juliet and Romeo led us on this journey of love and death. Eastoe in particular danced with joy, passion, despair, every emotion that the story requires. Her opening dance, with its quick footwork and fluid upper body movement, filled us with pleasure and anticipation.

Daniel Gaudiello continued to impress as Mercutio and moved, as his name in this ballet implies, like quicksilver, darting here and there, unpredictable and always impassioned in defence of his friends. Juliet’s nurse, usually played as a somewhat plump and bumbling if kind-hearted older woman, was intelligently performed by Elizabeth Hill and became (thankfully) a much less pantomimic role. A character introduced by Murphy—Death, the Prince of Darkness—provided a through line for the meandering locations and times. Death picks up bodies, which he places in a wooden cart (rather like the carts that carried the French to the guillotine in 1789—another reference). Or sometimes he just hovers menacingly in the background. It’s not a big dancing role but one that requires a very strong presence. It was very ably performed on opening night by Adam Bull.

In addition to Akira Isogawa, the collaborative team on this production included Murphy’s creative associate, Janet Vernon, set designer Gerard Manion, and Damien Cooper who lit the show. From among literally hundreds of costumes created by Isogawa, I especially liked the beautifully cut, high-collared black coat for Death and the pale olive, very simple costume for Juliet’s nurse. I was amused by the costume for Paris, which seemed to have a kind of gold ‘breast-plate’ of muscles. Paris is rarely portrayed in a sympathetic way and this addition to his costume suggested an inherent vanity. Manion’s strongest contribution was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work.

This Romeo and Juliet may not appeal to everyone, especially those who like their ballet to be more in a modernist vein, that is somewhat coherent in form. Did I miss the John Cranko version of Romeo and Juliet, which has been in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire for decades? Yes, a little, but in the same way as I occasionally yearn to see a traditional Swan Lake, rather than Murphy’s newer production. It’s part of the balletic legacy and we need to be reminded occasionally that we have a heritage.

But Murphy’s approach in 2011 raises many issues that are discussed across other art forms and it is refreshing to see this occurring in ballet, an art form that is so often seen as a little dowdy. Of course such issues include the notion that postmodernism is dead so we have to wonder whether this Romeo and Juliet is already outdated? But whatever one might think, it is a production worth seeing.

Michelle Potter, 19 September 2011

Featured image: Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

UPDATE, 11 December 2011: Romeo and Juliet. A second look

30 thoughts on “‘Romeo and Juliet’. The Australian Ballet

  1. Call me old fashioned but I did go with the anticipation of a classic, that could be viewed time and time again, if not to see the ballet but to see artists grow in the many roles that R&J has to offer. I found the characters didn’t have time to create themselves.

    I had no idea what to expect and no idea of the creative process. I was longing for romance and the build up to the romance. In fact there was no build up to any of the main focuses in the Shakespearean tale, which has kept us adoring this beautiful story of love and tragedy. Cranko’s lead up to the balcony pas in the ball scene just had you eagerly waiting for their meeting and the taunting, jeering and constant niggling that brings us to the fight scenes, and the misunderstandings that lead to the final suicide.

    To me it is the anticipation of what we are going to experience in the later pas and drama that makes the final outcome even more special. (No foreplay).

    I don’t understand postmodern, it’s just dance. I am sorry to say it must have gone over my head because I didn’t get so much of it. Why change countries, we all understand it’s a universal story. I thought Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were going to appear as two of the Indian girls in saris in the fight scene. I was upset at the cheap jokes it seems with Benvolio and Mercutio pretending to smoke a reefer (joint) and swimming in the sand. Bicycles?

    And the drama that unfolds in the desert with Lady Capulet wandering around with her high heels in hand and a large black Jackie O hat like a drunk Hollywood starlet on Malibu beach looking for a lift home. I am sorry but I am not so eloquent as you in my writing, but I just didn’t get it. Like you say, it’s worth a look definitely, but maybe only once.

    There was some very beautiful choreography, perhaps too much in the pas de deux, but not enough for the corps. I am a fan of Graeme and look forward to seeing Beyond 12 next year. Maybe I will get a scathing for my comments, but they are only mine.

  2. I meant to add, after mentioning some beautiful choreography, that it seemed to disappear under the grandeur of the technical and scenic exoticism. And, the dancers were fantastic.

  3. Paul makes some important points. But first I have to thank him for having the courage to say what he thinks. In this day and age, when previews constantly tell us what we have to think and when reviews seem to do little but parrot the company blurb, it is rare that anyone has the guts to stand up and express an opinion.

    The first important point that Paul makes is that he wanted to see something in which artists can grow and develop their artistry. This point has been made elsewhere on this site. I don’t know how that happens without the older versions being produced alongside the newer ones. Or is the fault of newer versions? Do choreographers (and coaches and directors) not do their jobs? I have always believed that Graeme and Janet were meticulous in working on such things. Comments welcome here.

    The second thing is the question of postmodernism. I actually believe that Paul understands more about postmodernism than he thinks. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope would have been perfect postmodern additions!! Postmodernism, in which I have to admit I have had a longstanding interest ever since I read some books written by Charles Jencks about the movement as it applies to architecture, was a handle for me to latch onto to write a review. I’m not sure that this R&J is the greatest ballet that Graeme has created – in my opinion that ballet is his Nutcracker. But I do think that ballet has to encourage debate if it is to be more than it is at present. In Australia, the Australian Ballet has to take on this role. It is the national company.

    Finally (from me anyway), I don’t think we have to know anything about the behind the scenes creative process when we go into the auditorium to watch a new production. We have a right to comment on what appears on stage as we see it. The best artists and companies have never demanded that we see things through their eyes only. Think Robert Wilson, Merce Cunningham – who is there in the ballet world??

  4. I am in Paul’s corner on this one. Yes, I also think “Nutcracker” is the best of Murphy’s rethinkings, although I seem to be in a minority in also highly valuing “The Silver Rose”. The “Swan Lake”, while engaging the first time around, quickly wore out it’s welcome for me and became tedious viewing, especially the Ballroom scene. The new “Romeo and Juliet”, while having an intellectual underpinning [the universal experience of romantic love throughout time and culture] fails for me to engage the emotions with a consistent through line. The careful theatrical build ups that Paul talks about are all missing. What is there is an agglomeration of scenes, some of which in themselves are theatrically effective, that do not create the overarching space to become involved in the events and emotions.

    And once the intermittent theatrical effectiveness of these scenes has worn off there is nothing for me to latch onto. Now I know it has been argued that most people will see a ballet once only in a season and then perhaps again on revival, so as long as it is effective for the single viewing it can be regarded as successful. However, as Paul points out, with effectively constructed and developed ballets where the choreography and design elements are in accord we can happily sit through them time after time seeing how different casts bring something of their own personality and their own stagecraft to the main roles without all the distractions of the wildly varying costumes and sets that this current production provides.

    Elsewhere I have noticed commentary that indicates that younger intellectually aware audiences will appreciate this new version more than older historically minded audiences. Seen in that light the production looks suspiciously like something thought up in the Australian Ballet’s marketing office. I have long told myself ignore all the nonsense emanating from them and just judge what is on stage. And that has worked. Up until now…….

  5. I know Adrian usually sees more than one performance (and hence more than one cast) during Melbourne seasons. I wonder if other casts he may have seen (Jones/Bull for example) added any insights?

    I thought that Eastoe and Jackson did a more than creditable job at holding the production together in the very difficult circumstances that this ‘playful deconstruction’ set them.

  6. As always with this company I feel the dancers give total commitment to everything that is put before them. And it is certainly true here as well. Because of the way the casting fell for my various subs and the near sell-out of tickets as the opening approached, I have been only able to catch Jackson/Eastoe and Gaudiello/Stojmenov perfs. I concur with all reports regarding Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe. His naturally dreamy, genial stage presence was ideally suited to the role. Daniel Gaudiello seemed more like one of the boys and did not stand out as being particularly sensitive or emotionally vulnerable. I can’t say that the production was altered in any way for me by a change of cast, as the leading roles don’t seem to be created so that even in the midst of all the visual mayhem a connection can be made. The incredibly fussy business leading up to Juliet’s coming down from the balcony then the flying out of the garden wall and then the floating stars and then the final noisy trucking back of the balcony unit all added up to zero involvement for me. Yes there was dancing happening in the midst of all this, but nothing seemed to really able take wing.

  7. Interesting. I didn’t have a problem with all the varying locations, though I didn’t find the use of them profound – in fact it actually served to water down the universality of the themes for me: i.e. took me out of emotion of the piece, which is why it is universal in the first place. But my beef is that I found the choreography decidedly conservative – I was surprised at how much so. I found the staging very much in the ‘canon’ of traditional repertoire, and was expecting more of a departure. Am I wrong?

  8. Whilst at heart a traditionalist there is room for Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet.This production needs time to mature. The choreography has wonder and depth. I feel that the transportation of cultures/lands is the area that seems not to gel with many. I felt that Daniel Gaudiello’s Romeo; and the cast of Ramos (Mercutio), and Hanaford (Benvolio) particularly more appealing than tv simulcast. I did however prefer Damian Welch as Lord Capulet – his depth of character/ research was most evident – bravo. Elizabeth Hill as the Nurse and Tristan Message as the Prince of Peace also expressed depth. I believe that this production will appeal to many. Yes, we want the theatre full. We want our art to be alive and current. Let our great choreographers choreograph and give them room to experiment.

  9. No-one is ‘wrong’ in the opinions expressed. It’s extremely healthy I think that there are differing opinions. I’m a little on the side of Sally though with regard to the choreography. But I think the issue is more that like everything else the choreography veered wildly from style to style. In fact now, 9 days after the opening, it is hard to remember much of it!

  10. I don’t disagree with Anne, but just a thought: should we be sitting through experiments that cost over a million dollars? Should a leading, fully professional choreographer at the level of Graeme Murphy be experimenting, and would he like his work to be described as an experiment? Criticism positive or negative will come their way, but if I thought that someone on the level of Jiri Kylian or Billy Forsythe or John Neumeier (which Graeme Murphy is) were experimenting with a company this size and with that much money, it would shock me. Experiments are for the young choreographers to make on a dance troupe or a school.

  11. With all due respect for Paul’s experience I find his comment regarding experimentation interesting and a little disappointing. I certainly do not think that experimentation is only for the young and low of budget. In all fields arts, science I believe that experimentation is vital throughout one’s career (i note that we are communicating via the direct descendants of several very expensive experiments).

    If we followed cinema’s pattern of throwing money at derivative works, we would all be poorer. Certainly isn’t it better to plonk a lot on something new like ‘inception’ than drivel like ‘transformers 2’. And sometimes it’ll fail – see Snyders Suckerpunch after such promise. Even Pixar, who had an unblemished record of box office and critical success has put out some less good films. But still, it’s art, it’s hard, if not impossible to predict what will be great.

    I think it was Peter Jackson who said that he only ever made films for himself and hoped that others would like them because you certainly can’t control anything else. It would be a dreadful shame if artists only stuck to what made them ‘great’. Other great choreographers such as Newson, McGregor, Tankard, Bausch constantly pushed themselves and boundaries into new territory. I actually think Forsythe would be upset to think that people thought he did not experiment or innovate. We also see it in cinema directors – few are consistently great film after film.

    You cannot guarantee greatness in art, and i think it is an unreasonable expectation that it is.

    With regards to Michelle’s comments regarding character development, I know Graeme and Janet are meticulous, but in the time constraints of this production, it was incredibly difficult to achieve. There were 4 casts that needed to go up. 3 and 4 I believe got 1 stage run each. Only Maddy and Kevin really got much in the way of time and detail. I am certain that the work will continue to grow and develop, it is still so very new, the paint has barely dried (literally).

  12. Point taken Jason, I did rush the end regarding the experiment being only for young choreographers with troupes or a school. I think mostly, I was really looking for a deeper, richer experience with Romeo, and had in my heart an already pictured idea of something. Foolish me. I was just in the mood to let my heart and emotions (on which I most probably too often rely), take me on a journey that quite frankly didn’t happen. I can’t see how even whilst the paint dries that this production can mature in a way that most would expect or wish. I see it (if not constantly nurtured or tweaked by the choreographer), in danger of sliding backwards into even more of a sort of triteness if not really tastefully restored each time. Thats just me, an aging ballet master. As for rehearsal time for the other casts, well that has been a bone of contention for me for years. I know a company such as the AB needs alternate casts but I don’t agree to just putting people on for the sake of it. I feel the audience deserves a well rehearsed cast even if they have to wait. Dancers too need that time and even if it can be disappointing it’s worth it in the end. In Hamburg Ballet it was very rare to have an unprepared cast and all were superlative in their own right. John [Neumeier] is very particular who performs and it shows with the standard and class of the company. AB has a big schedule I know, I’ve worked there, BUT there are other ways…
    Best to you, Paul.

  13. I loved R&J. Saw it @ SOH first night. I go to all that Graeme Murphy has ever been involved with so I know what I like. There was very large age range and that is good young people coming to see a beautiful event. BRAVO to all, the dance is very special.

  14. I went to see the performance with the expectation to see something profound – and at this level/calibre one is entitled to and should have high expectations. The promising signs were there (the story, the choreographer, the designer).
    I came away profoundly disappointed.
    (Wanted to see what others thought about the performance and found that there is no critical discourse, only repetition of some PR media releases on the subject, which I find disturbing and alarming.)
    This is not experimentation. This is just a sad attempt to appeal to the masses at all cost. Cheap shots – recognizable sketches of political, religious, social landscape that are nothing but caricatures and cheap gags. The profane in the story of the sublime… How could it, why would I work?! Sorry, but calling it postmodern is just a copout (most time it is). It is a disjointed, failed attempt to create a crowd-pleaser. And yes, the elaborate sets and designs do not always serve the purpose, rather, can overwhelm the story, the choreography and the dancers.

  15. I agree that there is too much reliance on media releases in so much writing about the arts in Australia. I also find it distrubing and alarming. However, I don’t think any of the comments on this post (nor on the ‘second look’ post) are parrotting media releases. On the contrary. I find the comments all refreshingly honest, and thank you for yours!

  16. It is great to try new things, but the is no guarantee that it will work. Sadly the new production of Romeo and Juliet is in that category. The country and time changes detract from the beauty of both the dance and the story being told. Of course the story is timeless and crosses all cultural boundaries, that is the essence of the tale and the fact that is has lasted for centuries is proof itself. The Australian Ballet does its best with a difficult work. It is confusing, too many scene changes and what is it with the bicycles? They were ridiculous. It would have been much better for Graeme Murphy to have accepted that Romeo and Juliet is a simple tragic love story and allowed the dancers to express that, rather than turning it into a farce. A clear case of Emperors New Clothes to me.

  17. What is it wth the bicycles? Well I have pondered that one for a while. I have to admit that I too was taken aback when I first saw them, and was even more taken aback when I saw the baguette that one of the riders was carrying, which I missed the first time. But I love the way Murphy has presented the role of Juliet’s nurse. I am used to the Cranko version where the nurse is a plump, bumbling kind of person and, despite Edna Edgley’s exceptional performances for the Australian Ballet in the Cranko version, I dislike the reduction of characters to a kind of pantomime role. Murphy has never done this, except perhaps in The Silver Rose, and I think in 2011 we should expect more than pantomime – hence my ongoing aversion to works like The Merry Widow. So I make sense of the bicylces by thinking well, if this story is changing eras, why would Juliet’s nurse, who is trying to deliver a letter to an address of which she is not sure, be tramping around the streets of Verona (or wherever in Europe – baguette=Paris) on foot when everyone else in these cities rides a bike (or takes the metro, but that’s a bit hard to put into a ballet)? I keep wondering about our expectations of ballet, and this ballet in particular. Does the story lose its profundity if it covers different territory and does so in a way that is not expected?

  18. I don’t have any beef with any of what I have seen from Graeme Murphy thus far (still to see R&J). What I think is wrong with these productions is that they purport to be a classic work (not necessarily classical) but completely lose the essential core. They could be great works in their own right, with their own music, characters etc. Give me your new – but don’t mess with my old. That doesn’t mean go stale. If a Marius Petipa ballet was recreated exactly with costumes, make-up, choreography all completely unchanged, we’d probably all wonder what was going wrong; but, modernise, adjust – yes, usurp – no!
    On another issue – the cost of experimentation – when neither AB nor OA can move off their comfortable east coast strip because it’s cost ineffective when everyone in Australia is paying taxes to keep them (some states keeping the rest afloat), they don’t have the luxury to blow money away on experimentation.

  19. Thank you for this comment, which raises a number of significant issues. Not the least of these is the cost factor associated with experimention. One of my ‘beefs’ has always been that you actually don’t need a huge amount of money to make a remarkable work. And using Graeme Murphy as an example, I will never forget his Sheherazade made in 1979 for Sydney Dance Company, with designs by Kristian Fredrikson. It was a minor miracle and made on a shoestring really. I recall that James Mollison, then director of the still-to-be-opened National Gallery of Australia, bought the costumes and some designs to help the company out of its financial woes. This reply, of course, does not address your remarks about east coast/west coast, but that issue is one that needs a full-scale discussion.

    I am also interested in the notion of ‘classic’. You may be interested, if you haven’t already seen it, in Alastair Macaulay’s review of the Australian Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake in New York. He alludes, I think, to the notion of contemporary classics and to the notion of classical.

  20. Much of this is, unfortunately, true from my perspective. But maybe he’s a little hard on the dancers who are really very precise both technically and in the relationship between choreography and musical score. (Which reminds me that the arrangement of the Swan Lake score for the GM version of Swan Lake was one of the bigger disappointments I suffered!) I don’t think that the artistic direction is ALWAYS giving the company a fair go. These almost hybrid ballets by GM put the dancers in the middle of an argument that might be best played out otherwise. That said Macaulay was sporadically positive about the dancers’ technique anyway.

  21. The review of the Infinity program (which was not the same Infinity as we saw in Australia) is at this link. Macaulay is a very fair and honest critic in my opinion and is driven by a great passion for ballet.

  22. I’m sure you’re right about Macaulay. But the review underlines the issue for AB. Is it an unthinking slave to modernity (or postmodernism). This comes back to my earlier point about classics and classical (or otherwise) new works. There needs to be “art” and technique in ballet, i.e. correct but expressive dancing (Bessmertnova v Duncan, perhaps?). Not very nice to read that our really hard working dancers appear “hard boiled”, but that’s off the Graeme Murphy theme.

  23. Do you know, I don’t think it’s enough to be hard-working. We know they work hard but someone like Macaulay only knows what he sees onstage. I think the AB is an unthinking slave to something. I’m not sure exactly what it is although I think it may be to the notion of self-congratulation. There has previously been comment on this site about publicity campaigns, the kind of glamorous image that the company likes to project about itself. In publicity the dancers are usually not shown as being part of any ballet but as some kind of glamorous object. They are designed into oblivion somehow. Such attitudes don’t develop dancers who think about what the essence of technique is, what’s classical and what’s modern and so on. There is a problem with direction I think but I don’t think it’s because they perform new works, which may or may not become classics in their own right.

    And now for a personal gripe on the New York season: it drives me mad that we get press here about standing ovations. Anyone who has spent any time in New York knows that there is no such thing as a ‘real’ standing ovation. Audiences just stand up at the end of a show. Often it’s because they are in a hurry to get out of the theatre to catch the subway before the crowd. Cynical I know but I’d rather have Macaulay’s ‘hard-boiled’ than an Australian comment that the company got a standing ovation. At least Macaulay makes us think a bit.

    Anyone else on these topics?

  24. So true, Michelle. Your observations are really very insightful. I agree with you about self-congratulation, not least because it leads away from self-improvement.

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