Romeo and Juliet
Labour of Love
This article is from 2008.
Kelly Apter goes behind the scenes at Scottish Ballet and talks to the people charged with bringing a contemporary vision of Romeo and Juliet to vibrant life
When the curtain falls on Scottish Ballet’s new production, it won’t just be the performers who deserve a round of applause. Sitting in the audience, it’s easy to forget the months of planning, preparation and perspiration that go into staging a large-scale show. The journey to bring this modern take on Romeo and Juliet to fruition started with an Italian holiday. A holiday where, under a Tuscan sky, choreographer Krzysztof Pastor, designer Tatyana van Walsum and dramaturg Willem Bruls turned Shakespeare’s 16th century teenage tragedy into a statement on 20th and 21st century life.
Prior to the 2006 Edinburgh International Festival, few, if any, UK dance fans had heard of Krzysztof Pastor. That all changed when Scottish Ballet performed his stunning abstract work, In Light and Shadow. Ever since, the company has been waiting for the Polish choreographer to return to Glasgow and work some more magic. When he eventually did, there was only one ballet he wanted to create: Romeo and Juliet. But why?
‘As a story it has everything,’ explains Pastor. ‘You can set it in the Renaissance, now or in the future, because this conflict and this impossible love has always been here, and always will be.’ As a result, Pastor and his creative team have taken the play’s ‘timeless’ quality and gone to town with it. The action now takes place in the 1930s, 1950s and present day, often at the same time. Confused? You may not be.
‘People always say that the story of Romeo and Juliet can happen anytime. And it’s also very much about the conflict of the parents, and probably their parents before them. So it keeps going over different generations, that’s why we wanted to move in time.’
It’s not just the timeline that Pastor has played around with as two of Shakespeare’s characters, the Nurse and Paris, have also ended up on the cutting room floor. ‘Shakespeare wrote the play when there were different rules for drama,’ says Pastor. ‘And the Nurse was a “comical relief”. Do I need a comical relief in my ballet? I don’t think so. Instead, Juliet has a group of friends, which is much closer to our reality today.’
As for the score, Prokofiev has been well and truly Pastorised. ‘I want the ballet to move fast. Not to have one market scene after another just for decoration. Prokofiev wrote it that way, but I don’t think it’s necessary; there’s enough dancing in it without using the full score.’
Gone too are the swashbuckling scenes where the Capulet and Montague men cross swords. Instead, there’s something far more real and identifiable going on. It’s Romeo and Juliet, but not as we know it. ‘It’s not a ballet with swords and it’s not a fairytale. It’s really a pacifist ballet. We want people to look for associations with the modern times.’
Tatyana van Walsum
Over the past 15 years, Pastor and designer, Tatyana van Walsum have become quite a team, creating visually striking ballets high on atmosphere. So when Pastor started work on Romeo and Juliet, there was only one woman to call. ‘There’s a lot of trust between us,’ says van Walsum. ‘So he really lets me do my thing. Some choreographers don’t start working until they’re in rehearsals, but Krzysztof prepares a lot in advance, which for a designer is very useful.’
Having flown out to Italy from her home in Amsterdam, van Walsum wandered the streets of Rome with her camera until she found the ideal backdrop; then the digital wizardry began. ‘The backdrop is always of the same street,’ she explains. ‘Once in black and white with cars of the 1930s, once in sepia with 1950s cars and Vespas. And then we use the photograph I took in Rome, which again has a very different feel.’
The timeless quality of Romeo and Juliet is clear enough, but what was it about the chosen eras that appealed? ‘The 1930s was the start of the Fascistic period so that fits very well with the Capulet family. And the Montagues have all the happy parts in Prokofiev’s music, so that fits nicely with the 1950s, when people were looking forward to the future. And Romeo and Juliet are dressed in present day clothes because a love story like this can happen anytime.’
For a dancer, playing Juliet is the role of a lifetime. In just a couple of hours, she changes from girl to woman, single to married, alive to dead. A meaty part for anyone to get their teeth into and the perfect vehicle for French dancer Sophie Martin to show exactly what she’s made of.
‘It’s probably one of the most realistic classical ballets there is, so it’s easier to just be yourself and be natural,’ says Martin of her role. ‘I feel more comfortable in this than in some of the other big classical ballets, more involved and closer to the character.’
Back in December, bus stops and walls across Scotland were covered with Martin’s image as Sleeping Beauty. And for the second time running, she’s Scottish Ballet’s poster girl, snuggling up to Erik Cavallari in the publicity shots for Romeo and Juliet. How does it feel to see your face emblazoned around town?
‘It’s a bit weird,’ laughs Martin. ‘But I think because I saw the picture so much before it was actually out in the street, it feels familiar. It’s just funny when my friends say they saw me in the gym or on the side of a bus. Maybe if it was in France it would feel more strange, but here it’s different.’
Head of wardrobe
With each Scottish Ballet production having three separate casts, the work of Caro Harkness is never done. As Head of Wardrobe it’s her job to liaise with designers, source material, find makers and keep the show’s vast number of costume looking pristine. Having just worked with a kaleidoscope of colours on Sleeping Beauty, Harkness was initially concerned about Romeo and Juliet’s largely monochrome feel.
‘At first I wondered if it was going to be colourful enough,’ she admits. ‘Because it’s mostly black and white with just an injection of red and blue. But Tatyana is very clear that that’s what she wants and I trust her as she’s a good designer. It should be very dramatic.’
Having searched the fabric houses of Germany and linen shops of Ireland, Harkness then sent samples to Tatyana van Walsum in Amsterdam, before calling on costume makers throughout Britain. Meanwhile measurements of every inch of the male dancers’ feet were sent to boot makers in America. It’s an huge operation that ensures that only the very best candidates are let loose on the bias cut 1930s dresses, 1950s linen trousers and present day underwear.
Unlike most designs, which just need to look good, every costume created for Scottish Ballet has to have freedom of movement. Although for Harkness and her team, that’s only half the story. ‘We don’t just think about the fact that somebody has to dance in these costumes. Somebody also has to wash them and make sure that at every performance they look as good as the first night. They have to be built to last, because this show will go out again next year and probably three or four years down the line. And they’ve got to have that wow factor for the audience. They need to look sharp.’
Romeo and Juliet, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 13-Sat 17 May; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Wed 4-Sat 7 Jun.