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Romeo And Juliet: Beyond Words
A film by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt
Score by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Original choreography by Kenneth MacMillan
Romeo – William Bracewell, Juliet – Francesca Hayward, Tybalt – Matthew Ball, Mercutio – Marcelino Sambé, Benvolio – James Hay, Lady Capulet – Kristen McNally, Lord Capulet – Christopher Saunders, Nurse – Romany Pajdak, Paris – Tomas Mock, Friar Laurence – Bennet Gartside, Harlots – Tierney Heap, Laura Morera, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Juliet’s friends – Elizabeth Harrod, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Mayara Magri, Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Gemma Pitchley-Gale, Leticia Stock, Rosaline – Fumi Kaneko, Lady Montague – Sian Murphy, Lord Montague – Thomas Whitehead, Prince Escalus – Gary Avis
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Koen Kessels
rec. Kordás Emberek Studios, Etyek, Hungary, 2019(?)
Picture: 16:9 Anamorphic
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0 and dts Digital Surround
All regions
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1294D [144 mins]

Here’s an interesting new release that raises once again some interesting questions about how ballet should best be filmed. In much simplified and, admittedly, somewhat exaggerated form, the positions in the frequently recurring debate are something like this…

Some balletomanes consider that the ideal way to record a performance would be to position a single, unmoving camera in a best seat in the stalls and then film the dancers in a single uninterrupted take. Apart from thereby supposedly replicating a real audience member’s experience, the theory goes that, with everything filmed in long-shot, the spectators’ eyes, rather than someone else’s cameras, get to decide what’s to be the on-stage focus of attention. Moreover, continuous long-shot also allows complete and continual appreciation of the whole length of the dancers’ bodies - especially their all-important legs and feet - as they interpret the music.

Is that, however, a practical approach? Given that a complete performance filmed from a premium front-and-centre seat remains, in practice, a fantasy, it might be assumed that that’s a question to which we can never know the answer. We can, however, find plenty of YouTube examples where badly-behaved spectators have surreptitiously used domestic camcorders to film substantial single-take sequences in theatres, albeit almost invariably shot from what seem to be the worst seats in the auditorium (chosen, no doubt, to be well away from the notice of the ushers). On the basis of those crude efforts, I think it’s fair to say that – in the absence of such compensations as the buzz of a live performance, the fascination of nosily checking out the rest of the audience and the keen anticipation of an interval choc ice - a filmed on-stage ballet composed entirely of a single or multiple prolonged long-shots generally turns out to be a very dull thing indeed.

At the other end of the spectrum are fans of ballet music who exhibit some sort of cultural aversion to actual dancing. They often claim to find ballet too effete and rarefied for their tastes and, if forced to abandon their cherished CDs and to actually watch something, would, I suspect, prefer it to be somewhat akin to a feature film – and ideally one in which the actors don’t actually dance recognisable (and thus, by implication, off-putting) steps but merely move gracefully while being accompanied, even if somewhat incidentally, by some attractive music.

However, any suggestion that ballets ought to be recorded in what we might term a cinematic fashion runs the risk of alienating that all-important base of hard-core ballet fans. Consider, for example, the reactions of just a few Amazon customers to Hugo Niebeling’s 1968 film of American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle. Even a stellar cast headed by Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn is not enough to save it from such scathing criticism as “The director's attempt to make the ballet look less like a filmed stage production and more like a cinema film was horribly misguided”, “restless camera work… intrusive camera angles… close-ups which are not really necessary… becomes rather tedious”, “What a pity the way this has been filmed detracts from the enjoyment of this production. Silly film shots through scenery and out-of-focus shots stop you seeing some important pieces of the choreography and the quick split second cuts from one shot to another is very distracting” and “Hyped up performance with intrusive camera angles…”.

Thankfully, between those favouring either extreme of an entirely-static or an overly-mobile camera we find the advocates of a middle-of-the-road solution – the employment of a varied and judiciously selected mixture of long shots (to give a full picture of the action and to show dancers in full length), medium shots (to add visual variety and to direct viewers’ attention to important pieces of the action) and close-ups (to convey dancers’ emotions). The strength of their case is, I think, best demonstrated by examining those filmed ballet productions that have, over time, become the most acclaimed. The many Royal Ballet performances directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon (whose background is, significantly, not in the film industry but as a dancer) are certainly among those most widely recognised as some of the best recordings of dance on film and it is no coincidence whatsoever that they are invariably composed of a carefully-crafted mixture of long shots, medium shots and close-ups.

After that somewhat lengthy preamble, I must remind you that, as my opening sentence indicated, this new release once again brings this whole debate into sharp focus. Romeo and Juliet: beyond words is billed as “a film by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt” and those gentlemen, respectively its Director and Director of Photography, use a booklet essay to nail their colours firmly to the mast. Their project seemed, they write, “like the perfect chance for a non-dance audience to experience the story on-screen exclusively through the language of dance… [A]lthough it uses classical ballet steps, the choreography is built around naturalistic acting rather than using traditional ballet mime, so we knew it would work well on screen… [T]here is an unparalleled intimacy present in the characters and the steps… [and so, by] bringing cameras close into the action, we hoped we could share this unique experience… [T]his would be the perfect ballet to shoot as a feature-length costume drama on location, to help share classical ballet and [choreographer] Kenneth MacMillan’s genius with a much wider audience.”

Indeed, the release’s very title Romeo and Juliet: beyond words is, I think, indicative of a very important point – that, while its creators may be justifiably expecting a core audience of ballet fans, their more ambitious aim is to attract general viewers who are already familiar with the words of Shakespeare’s play but will probably have never yet seen a danced interpretation of the story.

With ballet such an unfamiliar concept to much of its targeted audience, the production strives hard to keep its narrative and the dancers’ developing motivations as clearly delineated as possible. It is thus directed very much in the manner of a fast-moving feature film, much to the approval of Macmillan’s widow who recalls that her husband delighted in cinema’s sense of pace and was keen to inject some of it into his own ballets. As a result, about 40 minutes of Prokofiev’s music, all of it accompanying episodes that don’t drive the plot forward, have been jettisoned, though thankfully the producers have managed to incorporate much of the associated choreography into other points of the remaining score. The sense of energy is further emphasised visually by the constant mobility of the cameras. They dive repeatedly right into (and, indeed, right through) the action, entirely exploding any limitations of physical space and directorial ambition that might have been imposed by a theatrical stage. Incidentally, in spite of Messrs Nunn and Trevitt’s apparent advocacy of location filming, it should be noted that Romeo and Juliet: beyond words was actually shot not on the streets or in the buildings of a real town but in a large and very well-equipped film studio just outside Budapest that boasts impressively spacious facilities. Whatever the case, from the very opening credits onwards every studio set is not only very beautifully conceived and lit but also absolutely convincingly constructed and dressed and right for the story. We might as well indeed be on location.

Even though filmed in eastern Europe, this remains very much a Royal Ballet production. Its cast members, many of whom have known each other since childhood training at the Covent Garden company’s school, are still comparatively young (dancer Marcelino Sambé refers to the production as that of “our generation”) and thus they are more believable when appearing in character. They are, however, forced considerably beyond their comfort zones by the new and very different challenges posed by the process of shooting a film. As several of them point out, performing for several cameras placed all around them is very different from directing their performances in a single direction through a proscenium arch and across the orchestra pit. Similarly, conveying feeling to a camera lens stuck just a few feet away is a completely unfamiliar experience to artists more used to projecting emotion to an audience of 2,256 set well back in the Covent Garden auditorium. Compelled to re-think the ways in which they perform, the cast members are necessarily transformed in the process from dancers-who-act into actors-who-dance – which, according to Michael Nunn, is “exactly what [MacMillan] requires in his ballets”.

Thankfully, whether through effective training at ballet school, professional on-set coaching or sheer natural talent, all those involved – and especially those in the principal roles - deliver thoroughly convincing and naturally believable performances as actors, though it goes without saying, of course, that in honing their dramatic skills, none of them have compromised in the slightest degree their core abilities as professional dancers. If that sounds like damning with feint praise, let me stress that the technical and artistic quality of the dancing is quite outstanding. The leads Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell – paired here in these roles for the first time - are quite outstanding performers, utilising all their skills across the board to produce exquisitely nuanced performances that completely and convincingly communicate their characters’ innocence, intense passion or utter despair.

By the way, I was delighted to find that both Ms Hayward and Mr Bracewell – and, indeed, are many of the other dancers and both the producers – are featured substantially in an extra DVD feature that explores the background to the production as well as taking us onto the set while filming is in progress. This is one of the most interesting add-ons that I have ever encountered on a disc – a half-hour long documentary that isn’t merely a bland piece of uncritical PR but one that actually addresses some of the questions that you’d most like to hear answered (How, for instance, are roles cast? How does it feel when someone else is awarded the part that you’d hope to get?) There’s also a slightly shorter extra film in which interviewer Samira Ahmed lobs a few softball questions at the dancers and production team and we enjoy the opportunity of seeing and hearing the dancers as they speak and behave in real life. It’s clear overall that a great deal of thought and care has gone into producing these extra features and I only wish that other companies would follow suit.

Quite honestly, I find it hard to think of anything about this production that disappointed me. Even the excision of some of the score to fit the film’s 90 minutes timescale passed almost unnoticed. Perhaps hard-core balletomanes will disapprove of a production edited together, as films invariably are, from the best of many individual takes. If that really is such an issue, they can, however, console themselves with such outstanding theatrically-staged performances as those from Tamara Rojo/Carlos Acosta/Royal Ballet (Decca Blu-ray 074 3336, review), Lauren Cuthbertson/Federico Bonelli/Royal Ballet (Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD7116 D, review) and Misty Copeland/Roberto Bolle/Royal Ballet (C Major Blu-ray 743604, review). Another high-quality production, this time featuring not MacMillan’s but Helgi Tomasson’s choreography and danced by Maria Kochetkova, Davit Karapetyan and San Francisco Ballet, is also well worth watching (C Major 739104, review). I still think, however, that anyone dismissing a “cinematic” version on the basis of some sort of principle would be missing out, so I’d strongly suggest that they take a look at the official “teaser” and trailer that have been posted on YouTube. For everyone else – whether ballet tyro or someone with more than a passing interest in dance - I cannot recommend Romeo and Juliet: beyond words highly enough.

Rob Maynard

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