Taking risks with Romeo and Juliet
What: The National Ballet of Canada performs a new Romeo and Juliet by American Ballet Theatre choreographer Alexei Ratmansky
When & where: Jan. 31- Feb. 2, The NAC’s Southam Hall
Tickets: At the NAC box office or through Ticketmaster
When Southam Hall’s red velvet curtain rises on the National Ballet of Canada’s Romeo and Juliet Thursday night, Ottawa dance lovers can expect to see some exciting new changes to the old classic.
The first thing they’ll notice is the sparkling, laser-cut choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, artist-in-residence of the American Ballet Theatre and former artistic head of the Bolshoi. NBC artistic director Karen Kain commissioned Ratmansky to create a new Romeo and Juliet for the company’s 60th anniversary. It was a bold move. John Cranko’s setting has been an NBC mainstay since the 1960s, and it’s always risky to mess with an audience favourite. For Kain, the gamble paid off: the ballet’s world premiere, in November 2011, was met with standing ovations.
“(Ratmansky’s) aesthetic, steeped in the Russian school but open to contemporary sources, is ideal for this work and our company which, with our classical heritage and our passion for the modern, is perfectly suited to his distinctive dance vision,” Kain said in a statement. Dance critics who have seen the production have generally concurred.
Ratmansky’s action-packed interpretation, set to Prokofiev’s beloved score, is bursting with explosive jumps, daring lifts and thrilling fight sequences. He does away with colour-coded costumes for the two warring families, preferring a less mannered feel. He also makes some small but surprising changes to the plot, including a shocking twist in the final scene.
The other bright shiny thing Ottawa can look forward to discovering is ballerina Elena Lobsanova, who will dance Juliet to Guillaume Côté’s Romeo on opening night. Lobsanova, 25, is the company’s newest star. Her performance as Juliet has made the dance world sit up and take notice, with writers gushing over her “elegant proportions,” “majestic” quality of movement and an expressive maturity beyond her years.
The tension-fraught process through which Ratmansky picked her for the role over far more experienced dancers was filmed by CBC in last year’s Ballet Idol-style television documentary, Romeos and Juliets. Among other memorable moments, viewers saw a nervous, exhausted-looking Lobsanova slipping, falling, and breaking out in pimples from the stress of rehearsals. Embarrassed at the time, the dancer says she has put those jitters far behind her.
“There’s no pressure at all,” Lobsanova laughs musically over the phone from Toronto, the barest trace of a Russian accent in her voice (her parents moved from Moscow to Toronto when she was a child). “We’ve performed and rehearsed it so many times now, it’s like second nature.”
Like so many NBC dancers, Lobsanova is a company “lifer,” having studied at the National Ballet School before joining the company as an apprentice in 2005. However, her momentum was temporarily halted when she suffered a stress fracture in her foot, an injury that sidelined her for almost two years.
Some say the fracture occurred because she jumped at the apprenticeship contract too early, before she was physically or mentally ready for the rigours of company life. But Lobsanova doesn’t indulge in 20-20 hindsight.
“There were a lot of reasons for the injury,” she says. “I don’t think you can say it was because I was too young. It’s true I had a late growth spurt, but I also ignored the injury because I didn’t really understand what a stress fracture was. I thought I knew my body so I kept pushing, because that’s how I am. I’m a very, very, very stubborn person!”
That stubborn streak served her well during her slow, careful rehab, while her new-found patience was rewarded with a promotion to second soloist in 2009. That year, she also won the woman’s award at the exclusive Eighth International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize. In 2011, the NBC promoted her again, this time to first soloist.
Lobsanova is reaching the stage in her career where other tempting offers might beckon. But for now, she’s happy where she is.
“Toronto is my home, in so many ways,” she says. “My family is here, but I also cherish what the company has given me. And when you travel a lot and see what’s going on in other countries, you realize that Canada’s like this huge, stable rock. So I have no plans to go anywhere yet.”
On Saturday, February 2, dance students can attend a public ballet class with the National Ballet’s Jonathan Renna, who will dance Mercutio on February 1. Register in advance by January 30 with the NAC’s dance outreach coordinator at 613-947-700, ext. 588, email@example.com.