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  • Writer's pictureLinnea Swarting

PBS "Great Performances: Romeo and Juliet" Satisfies the Theater- Missing Audience Member

After months of digital dance content fatigue, on Sept. 11th, I found myself excited to watch PBS’ premiere broadcast of the Royal Ballet in “Great Performances: Romeo and Juliet,” filmed by the BalletBoyz (Michael Nunn and William Trevitt). It isn’t comparable to most quarantine- produced digital content, because it wasn’t created during the restricted time of COVID, but it isn’t even comparable to most other dance films, including other productions put out by the Royal Ballet. As opposed to the standard stage-recording, the BalletBoyz staged this production on a realistic Verona set, with dancers dancing through the streets (don’t worry- it was a sprung floor). Incredibly creative with some magnificent shots, but also occasionally the set was more of a hinderance than an asset for the viewer- after about 10 shots partially obstructed by foliage to create a sense of “peeping on the dancers,” I was wishing for more clarity to view the movement. Overall, the experience and intimacy created by this team, who were formerly dancers themselves, showed the iconic MacMillan choreography in a realistic and new light- and I don't take messing with the traditional MacMillan presentation lightly as it's my absolute favorite against which I measure all other "Romeo and Juliets."

The dancers’ portrayals were either expertly coached or they naturally took to the screen, which is quite a different feeling from being onstage. Francesca Hayward, always an astounding Juliet, radiated on screen. Nunn and Trevitt explained that in their casting process and multiple screen tests, she appeared as the clear choice for Juliet due to her under-acting. (I didn’t see “Cats” but I can’t imagine that it contributed at all to her subtly of character, as that whole movie seemed outrageous- nevertheless, Hayward has experience with film and is lovely in that realm.) She appeared incredibly young- she turned 26 during the filming process- with her small frame and large, expressive eyes. Opposite her as Romeo was first- soloist, William Bracewell. A Romeo by all means of physical appearance, and his dancing had beautiful moments of clarity (see: Capulet Ball variation ending with a pique en dehors with release of the leg to a la second, pausing for a breath before kneeling). Marcelino Sambé as Mercutio was divine- his technique on point for the duration of his life on screen, and the death scene dramatic as ever.

Mercutio’s death led into perhaps the best scene- Lady Capulet discovering Tybalt’s death. After Mercutio is carried off, Romeo and Tybalt continue the fight, with rain coming down, adding to the drama. Kristen McNally as Lady Capulet emerges in the crowd surrounding the body, cries mixed with the downpour. The amount of raw emotion completely swept me away from reality, and also got me thinking about that fan theory that Lady Capulet was having an affair with Tybalt. This scene of mourning, usually the end of Act 2, was almost more impactful than the death of the lovers.

As for the second half of the film, it went by almost too quickly. There were some great film moments in Juliet’s bedroom with her parents (again McNally’s presence in this scene was powerful- not overpowering her husband, but more eye-catching). It felt like rapidly after, we arrived at the crypt’s beautifully creepy set. I was disappointed by the choice to film so much of the lovers’ deaths from behind the bars of the crypt. Understandably, the intention seemed to be to make the audience feel like we were really there, but the result was more distracting than transporting. Still a heartbreaking death scene, especially from Hayward, left me with that sad satisfaction of a “good show” of Romeo and Juliet.

I hope that this film maybe entices some non- ballet viewers to watch, as there are some gorgeous film successes- including the balcony pas de deux with actual night wind blowing upon the lovers- that might convert them. Even despite my few minor complaints, BalletBoyz and the artists of the Royal Ballet created that same feeling of watching a ballet that I would get in the theater, that rush of adrenaline and heart-swelling emotion, which I have been missing over the last few months of digital dance viewing.

You can view the film in its entirety here:

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