Romeo and Juliet by Geneva Ballet

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The Geneva Ballet are in town to bring us their contemporary, tutu-less interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. Anna Cummins talks Shakespeare and love with choreographer Joëlle Bouvier

It was 1935 when Sergei Prokofiev finished writing the music for his ballet version of Shakespeare tragedy Romeo and Juliet. But when the Russian composer handed the score over to the Bolshoi Ballet later that year, they spectacularly rejected it, with the dancers famously claiming it was ‘undanceable’. 

As it turned out, it was quite the opposite. And over the course of the next century, the composer’s evocative score became the near-ubiquitous choice for dance companies performing Shakespeare’s tragic tale of star-crossed lovers: the Royal Danish Ballet, New York City Ballet, English National Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and the Hungarian National Ballet are just some of the companies that have performed to this ‘undanceable’ music. 

And now, it’s Hong Kong’s turn for a bit of Prokofiev’s iconic work. Switzerland’s highly acclaimed Geneva Ballet is bringing its interpretation of the story to the city stage, following a successful run of performances around Europe. The production is choreographed by Swiss contemporary dance master Joëlle Bouvier, whose previous works tend to focus on love themes (her last production to reach Hong Kong was 2007’s De l’amour). When we speak with her, Bouvier’s passion for Shakespeare’s most recognisable story is tangible. “Because [Romeo and Juliet] is a love story, everyone can relate to it,” she says. “Everybody needs love. The story of Romeo and Juliet is forever. It’s so important for humanity, this kind of story.” 

Bouvier reckons the 400-year-old tale is as starkly relevant for the modern Hong Kong audience as it would have been in Shakespeare’s day. “This story is very actuel (French for current),” she says, “because it’s still an issue for lovers to be together if they are not from the same social background. Sometimes they haven’t got the same skin colour and today, that’s still a problem. And so this story is very actuel.”

It’s undeniable that the tear-jerking story of Juliet and her Romeo is dramatic perfection, complete with feuding families, young lovers and that finale. Yet, the drama of the story is usually conveyed by actors using words as well as performance in standard theatrical productions. How do dancers send the same strong messages to the audience, though? “The ballet is abstract – it’s more immediate than theatre,” says Bouvier. “It’s like visual music, because you see the bodies moving. The ballet is poetic. It creates an immediate impression. I try to use the bodies of the corps de ballet and the bodies of the dancers to explain the love. Everybody understands exactly what I want to say. It’s a contemporary dance, so I tried to make the movements and the actions very immediate for the audience.”

Indeed, this is a firmly contemporary production – in other words, if you’re expecting tutus, think again. The dancers are all barefoot, with the men in plain shirts or shirtless, and the women in neutral-coloured slip dresses. The setting is timeless. And the set is a simple, sweeping arena curving along the back of the stage. Bouvier chose this design ‘to feel like an arena, as the Capulet family and the Montague family are always fighting together’. “The families are so stupid,” she says. “It’s like a war. So, for me, the arena is the best situation to present this dance, for this story.”

In keeping with the minimal approach, this production in Hong Kong has also removed some of the classic characters. “It’s a very simple story,” says Bouvier. “I don’t use the nurse, I don’t use the parents. I use only the story about Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio and Paris.” The same, minimal tactic was used for the production’s music, which uses key excerpts from Prokofiev’s original three suites. “All the music is not exactly for me. There are some bits that are absolutely wonderful – but many moments where the music is not interesting. It’s too long!” says Bouvier with a laugh. “The audience [would] get tired.”

 This production is a raw, fresh take on the 16th century story, which is seemingly as relevant and as popular now as it ever has been. And Bouvier believes that the popularity of the tale will never fade. “It’s an eternal story,” she claims. “In 100 or 200 years’ time, I’m sure choreographers – and everyone for that matter – will still want to experience this story.”

Romeo and Juliet by Geneva Ballet, Jul 19-21Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Tickets 2734 9009; urbtix.hk

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