Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo at The Kennedy Center (review)

The audience in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center last night was buzzing for the North American Premiere of Juliet and Romeo by the choreographer Mats Ek, performed by the Swedish National Ballet. The large European ballet companies are better-funded and simply better than many U.S. companies and while Ek is lesser-known (even among those who love Bejart and Kylian) he’s a brilliant dance-maker.

Ek is the son of choreographer Birgit Cullberg and married to the dancer Ana Laguna (performing in these shows.) Dance is his whole life, and at 71 years old his sensibility remains entirely modern.

Jerome Marchand as Mercutio in Mats Ek's Juliet and Romeo (Photo: Gert Weigelt)

Jerome Marchand as Mercutio in Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo (Photo: Gert Weigelt)

If you were thinking a ballet titled Juliet and Romeo would focus on the female lead, in this case you’d be wrong. Mercutio is the heart of this production, and Jerome Marchand is fully fabulous in the role. His character’s development and interactions create the core around which this reinterpretation revolves. There are plenty of dances for the main couple –individually and together – and those are lovely but among the least complex. One knows what is going to happen in that relationship, and it does. Mercutio is exciting, in one scene having an entertainingly brotherly dance with Benvolio, in another dancing topless in heeled boots and a black tutu.

juliet and romeo
Juliet and Romeo
The Royal Swedish Ballet
at The Kennedy Center
closes June 4, 2016
Details and tickets

Ek is known for inclusiveness rather than inventiveness in his movement choices and if you’re a lover of dance you may recognize bits of Pina Bausch, Martha Graham, and Matthew Bourne, along with the modern balletic vocabulary. Ek is multi-lingual and in this production creates functional diverse vocabularies for his characters and their relationships.

Almost all of the relationships, including between Romeo and Mercutio, are sexualized and that feels like a bit of an easy way out. What makes humanity, culture, and Shakespeare compelling is more psychologically complex. But it is interesting to see sex as a motivator for the character’s interactions within the traditional storyline, and along with the sex there’s effective physical humor – at one point the queen rolls though riding a Segway.

The Tchaikovsky score, played beautifully by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under Phillipe Auguin doesn’t disappoint.

Ek recently decided that he will retire and withdraw his ballets. It’s hard to know what that means, really, but when asked at an interview earlier in the week what he wanted to express next his answer was simple: nothing. Enjoy Ek’s exceptional voice and this incredible company while they’re still around.


Robert Bettman About Robert Bettman

Robert Bettmann is an arts writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He's founder of the arts magazine Bourgeon and the non profit Day Eight. In the last year he's completed projects with funding from the DC Arts commission and DC Humanities Council and was recently awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to expand arts journalism in DC. Robert is an artist himself, having transitioned into writing after a decade-long career as a performing artist. He trained on scholarship at the Washington Ballet and Alvin Ailey schools and performed modern dance and ballet nationally and internationally. His first book, Somatic Ecology, was published in 2009, and he is the editor of an arts anthology, Bourgeon: Fifty Artists Write About Their Work, published recently. (Bio photo: Joanne Miller)



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