“Ballet rocks!” is a phrase increasingly bandied about by enthusiastic dance fans. Ballet has indeed been bursting its opera-house laces, with high-profile appearances in a Kanye West video, in Black Swan (“ballet shocks!”) and on the catwalk (“ballet frocks!”). The latest such outing is the Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet at the O2 Arena, a cavernous stadium that usually presents the biggest names in rock and pop.
It was more a social than an artistic experiment. Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography is largely intact, but is bigged up by an amplified orchestra, heightened set and live relay screens (essential for a stadium this size). Filmed vignettes of the dancers serve as intertitles to scene changes, and the whole production – with its declamatory gestures, emotive live music, cutting between crowd scenes and closeups – has the feel of silent cinema.
Stage and screen don’t always mesh. Group formations work better on stage, solos and duets on screen. A portentous voiceover sounds film-trailer trashy; zooming in on death throes and wailing women while the music blasts away feels overblown; and you certainly sense the shortfall between a stage kiss and a screen kiss. Still, the long sightlines and open wings lend the dancers a heroic air, and what you miss in nuance they make up for in expansiveness. On the first night, Carlos Acosta was the star draw, but the emotional centre was Tamara Rojo, powerfully portraying Juliet as a woman in whom love unleashes forces that she could not have imagined.
The event certainly brought ballet to new audiences. But the encounter cuts both ways; old-hand balletgoers who complained about latecomers, chattering and hot dogs should wise up: it’s the O2, not Covent Garden. Take ballet out of the opera house, and you also have to take some opera house out of the ballet.