With a history that stretches back to 1773, you’d expect the esteemed Royal Swedish Ballet to offer a “Romeo and Juliet” full of swordplay and courtly gowns. But no — not when master choreographer Mats Ek is in charge. He reimagined the tragic love story in 2013 with the same urban, gritty edge that he’s given “Giselle,” “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” And he may be the first interpreter of Shakespeare’s play to flip the title, putting Juliet first.
The Royal Swedish Ballet’s “Juliet and Romeo” receives its West Coast debut June 10-12 at Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts, along with the Kennedy Center one of only two US destinations on the company’s present tour. The Pacific Symphony, led by Swedish conductor Eva Ollikain, will bring to life to the Tchaikovsky score, rearranged for this production.
This is the first visit to the West Coast by the Royal Swedes in 15 years, giving good reason for celebration. Further, Ek’s ballets are rarely performed in the US, but Europe is gaga over them. In 2015, “Juliet and Romeo” won Britain’s prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production, and London critics were full of superlatives for the work. In January, Ek announced in Paris that he is “making a definite stop to performance and production and selling my works,” which augurs an even rarer occasion to view an Ek ballet in Southern California.
The title has a feminist feel by putting Juliet first; so does the casting. The Nurse is danced not by a 25-year-old trying to look mature, but by Ek’s wife, the fiercely beautiful 62-year-old Ana Laguna, whose rich career has included partnerships with Baryshnikov and Nureyev. It’s unusual for a dancer of that age to be performing in a significant role. Laguna is a strong and compelling presence on stage and, as she and Ek have imagined her, the Nurse contributes some of the ballet’s lighter moments. As for the lovers, Ek’s Juliet is an awkward, gangly and tempestuous teenager who dances barefoot, Romeo is her love-struck follower, and their friends and families are more street punk than privilege. The sets are dark and metallic and with overtones of conflict and war and the costumes are inspired by jeans and hoodies, not brocade. Think “West Side Story” for the 21st century.
Ek is a pioneer. Since 1993, he has forged his own path as a freelance choreographer and his remake of the classic story ballets has stunned and thrilled. In 1999, the New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote: “at his best, he is outrageous.” He thinks more like a theater director than a choreographer, which is not surprising since his mother, Birgit Cullberg, created realistic dance dramas post World War II, and his father, Anders Ek, was a leading Swedish actor. Ek worked as a theater director in the sixties and was also an assistant to Ingmar Bergman at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater.
At its heart, of course, “Juliet and Romeo” is a love story. A favorite of choreographers and one that is hard to resist, in any interpretation.
Gillian Anne Renault has written about dance for the Los Angeles Daily News, Herald Examiner and artsATL in Atlanta .
Juliet and Romeo | Royal Swedish Ballet | Segerstrom Center for the Arts | June 10 – 12