Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has often been reinterpreted in films, musicals and many, many ballets, the latest, the Hong Kong Ballet’s Romeo + Juliet choreographed by the troupe’s artistic director Septime Webre to the luscious recorded Sergei Prokofiev score.
Webre has been the artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet since 2017. The company, founded in 1979, aims for acceptance as an international force. The immaculate quality of the dancing is evidence of Webre’s standards. Add to this the richness of the staging and the imagination in evidence at the New York City Center, and this troupe is clearly working hard to measure up.
Webre’s version of this classic tragedy was sumptuous in every respect: the sets designed by Ricky Chan were extravagant and colorful, including brilliant neon signs, rich draperies and three huge staircases; Mandy Tam’s ornate costumes—flowing Chinese garb, slit skirts, Western suits, bridal gowns and formal robes—were evocative and character-friendly; and Ruby Yau’s take on Billy Chan’s original lighting effects created mood as well made the costumes and sets glow.
Although set in 1960 Hong Kong, Webre pretty much followed the original plot, only with the characters given Chinese names and the action placed in an exotic Chinese location.
Romeo and—or is it “+”?—Juliet kept their names, but Mercutio became Little Mak (a spirited Albert Gordon); the Nurse, the Amah (Gao Ge, earnest and fluid); Tybalt, Tai Po (Alexander Yap, tall and commanding); County Paris, Mr. Parker (Jonathan Spigner, courtly, but bland); Friar Laurence, a Sifu (Garry Corpuz, formal, yet a passionate fighter); and, Rosaline, now Rosa (Xu Shentian, sassy and quick-footed).
Webre is fine handling big ensembles. His very busy Hong Kong street scenes, filled with prostitutes, tourists, gangs and even a movie shoot, was convincingly quotidian and his ballroom scene, where Romeo meets Juliet, has the power of unison movement. His droll steps for Romeo and his two pals cleverly communicate their camaraderie.
Where he fails is in the scenes that require sweeping emotions, particularly the three R & J duets: the ballroom scene, the balcony scene and their parting before Romeo is forced into exile for killing Tybalt—sorry, Tai Po.
Both Romeo (Taras Domitro) and Juliet (Xuan Cheng) of Cast B were exuberant and technically secure, but were hamstrung by the repetitive classical steps given them by Webre. They acted with their faces—often overdoing the melodrama—but were uninformed emotionally by the bland choreography.
Yes, great technical demands were placed upon these leads—as well as the rest of the cast—but there was no sensuality, no feeling that these two lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
Webre went for acrobatics and precision rather than passion. Perhaps, the Chinese Communist regime frowns upon openly sexual expression in dance. Perhaps Webre can’t summon anything but pretty pictures, but his Romeo + Juliet was theatrically brilliant, but emotionally shallow.
It would be helpful to see these dancers in classical standards and works by choreographers as Balanchine, Robbins and Ashton and other modern masters.
Hong Kong Ballet’s Romeo + Juliet (January 13-14, 2023)
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission
A sumptuous new ballet version of a Shakespeare tragedy that fails to move.