Best known for his remakes of classic tales – especially his now legendary version of Swan Lake – Matthew Bourne is a very big name, his company New Adventures touring nationally and internationally far more than any other British company. It’s a lofty position, but Bourne is far from aloof, and has invested considerably in nurturing new choreographers and young performers over the years.
His new Romeo and Juliet at Sadler’s Wells reunites his perennial team of designer Lez Brotherston and music arranger Terry Davies, but also draws in a raft of talent from the company’s Young Associates Scheme, including assistant choreographer Arielle Smith, creatives working in design and sound, and several young dancers. More than a laudable initiative, it also makes the piece feel flushed with the energy of youth: headstrong, dynamic, emotionally intense, often unpolished, always fresh.
In Bourne’s scenario, Verona is not a city of feuding families but the name of an institute for troubled young inmates, one of whom is Juliet. Romeo, the son of career politicians, is placed there more for their convenience than his own good, and befriended by the coltish trio of Mercutio, his boyfriend Balthasar, and their friend Benvolio.
The ensuing drama is not subtle, but damn, it’s powerful. Repressive guard Tybalt – toxic masculinity at its most brutish – intimidates, manipulates and then (the implication is clear though the act takes place off stage) rapes Juliet. That trauma underlies her attraction for Romeo, whose vulnerability speaks to her own, and with whom she can recover a sense of her own desire. Of course it’s not all psychology: they also have the hots for each other. Their choreographed kiss is the longest you’ll ever see, lips locked as they writhe and wriggle over the set.
Within this clinical, oppressive setting there’s a good deal of (sometimes black) humour in Act 1: deftly choreographed joshing among Romeo’s mates, some sprightly references to Grease, and an excruciating ballroom scene, in which the male and female roles enforced by ballroom dancing feel deeper and more divisive than any Capulet/Montague feud. Act 2 becomes more shocking, more tragic and more horrific, and there is a lot of blood. Is it excessive? Yes, but it’s also very effective. Bourne never loses touch with his characters, and he twists the tale as well as the knife.
The set is spare, imposing and remarkably versatile, allowing action to be sensed both on and off stage. Prokofiev’s music rescored for small orchestra grates initially but soon comes to feel just right, harder and nervier than the lush original. But hats off, in the end, to the young cast – especially the leads (Cordelia Braithwaite and Paris Fitzpatrick on press night), who gave it their all and made it their own.
Figure a Sea, performed by the Swedish Cullberg company for one night only at the Southbank Centre, is the polar opposite of Bourne’s youthful drama. Choreographed in 2015 by Deborah Hay, a veteran experimentalist with a career stretching back to the 1960s, it’s an undemonstrative work that ends up seeping into the bones of your being.
Watching it is like sitting quietly in nature, and letting yourself receive the sounds and textures of life around you. Before the piece begins, it seems to be already there: the dancers are wandering about the stage as we enter the auditorium. What do you notice, as the lights dim and the audience settles? That the stage is marked by a white square. That the costumes form three distinct species: mesh vests with grey shorts, blue-black shirts and shorts, coral-patterned tops with long leggings. That the performers look as alert and inscrutable as animals. That their actions seem random: there, someone wobbles a loose leg and swivels stiff arms; here, someone ambles aimlessly.
Patience. After a while, you notice patterns forming and fading. An example: the dancers assemble into a rough V, and swivel until they’re all leaning in one direction, like leaves tilting their faces toward the sun. Somewhere along the way, you realize that Laurie Anderson’s sound score has crept in, enlivening the air with bubbling blips, quickening rhythms or notes sustained like sighs.
Stay longer and your perceptions sharpen further. You notice different dancers simultaneously, each with a distinct ambulatory mode and weight of presence. What had looked random becomes a picture of shifting elements, large and small. And in one extraordinary yet still undramatic scene, a man advances through the flux in a graceful balletic adagio, and takes a slow-motion bow. It’s like watching a strange and wonderful creature emerge from the forest only to realize, as it finally faces you, that it is another human being.
One of Hay’s recurrent questions has been: how do you get a group of people dancing without telling them what to do? Figure a Sea is one answer: a piece that seems to emerge from its own ideas through its bodies, without aiming for an outcome yet leaving its imprint nonetheless.