Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo at The Kennedy Center

The audience in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center last night was buzzing for the North American Premiere ofJuliet and Romeo by the choreographer Mats Ek, performed by the Swedish National Ballet. The large European ballet companies are better-funded and simply better than many U.S. companies and while Ek is lesser-known (even among those who love Bejart and Kylian) he’s a brilliant dance-maker.

Ek is the son of choreographer Birgit Cullberg and married to the dancer Ana Laguna (performing in these shows.) At 71 years old his sensibility remains distinctly modern.

Jerome Marchand as Mercutio in Mats Ek's Juliet and Romeo (Photo: Gert Weigelt)

Jerome Marchand as Mercutio in Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo (Photo: Gert Weigelt)

If you were thinking a ballet titled Juliet and Romeo would focus on the female lead, in this case you’d be wrong. Mercutio is the heart of this production, and Jerome Marchand is fully fabulous in the role. His character’s development and interactions create the core around which this reinterpretation revolves. There are plenty of dances for the main couple –individually and together – and those are lovely but among the least complex. One knows what is going to happen in that relationship, and it does. Mercutio is exciting, in one scene having an entertainingly brotherly dance with Benvolio, in another dancing topless in heeled boots and a black tutu.

Ek is known for inclusiveness rather than inventiveness in his movement choices and if you’re a lover of dance you may recognize bits of Pina Bausch, Martha Graham, and Matthew Bourne mixed with the traditional balletic vocabulary. Ek is multi-lingual and in this production creates diverse vocabularies for his characters and their relationships.

Almost all of the relationships – including between Romeo and Mercutio – are sexualized, and that feels like a bit of an easy way out in this entertainment. What makes humanity, culture, and Shakespeare compelling is more complex. But it is interesting to see sex as a motivator for these character’s interactions within the traditional storyline, and along with the sex there’s effective physical humor; at one point the queen rolls though riding a Segway.

The Tchaikovsky score, played beautifully by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under Phillipe Auguin doesn’t disappoint.

Ek recently decided that he will retire and withdraw his ballets. It’s hard to know what that means, really, but when asked at an interview earlier in the week what he wanted to express next his answer was simple: nothing. Enjoy Ek’s exceptional voice and this incredible company while they’re still around.

This article was published here on DCTheatreScene.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.