Friday night, February 2, 2024, the Ahmanson Theater audience waited in excited anticipation for Matthew Bourne’s, “Romeo + Juliet” to commence. The phenomenon that is Matthew Bourne, is due to his ability to tell a gripping story through dance. He may put his own spin on the telling but because of his particular genius we are with him all the way. Here he has taken the love story we all know so well and turned it on its head by setting it in an institution for delinquent or perhaps mentally ill youth. The indelible score composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1935, has been respectfully reworked here by Terry Davies to enhance the storytelling. From the moment the curtain rises to the magnificent “Dance of the Knights” theme, we are swept into this tale not to return until the final curtain.
The ballet opens on a tableau of the dead Romeo and Juliet, while the company of inmates/dancers, dance despairingly, almost robotically around them. Putting the ending at the beginning allows Bourne to tell us the story retrospectively. The brilliant set, “Verona Institute” by, Lez Brotherston, is a tall intimidating curved wall surrounded by fencing, with iron work and stairways, leading up to a high passageway which will ultimately become the “balcony.” At times, a large magnificently lighted dome hovers menacingly above the stage. Several gated doors line the wall all giving the impression of a prison while leaving the downstage area free to dance. And dance they do. Bourne is the Director and the Choreographer here, yet he has brought in the choreographic talent of Arielle Smith to energize and update the work, which she does perfectly.
Though Bourne has taken liberties with Shakespeare’s work, the underlying story remains the same, young lovers who are doomed from the start. Here is a woeful Juliet, heart wrenchingly played by Bryony Pennington, unstable and harassed by the predatory Tybalt, an unsettling Cameron Flynn. Flynn’s Tybalt is dangerous and capable of rape or worse but Bourne has given him more than one dimension and we see that he suffers too. Romeo is the innocent here played with touching naivete by Rory Macleod. He must go to behavioral extremes to be noticed by his “oh so important” parents Senator Montague, Alan Vincent, and his wife Brie, Kate Lyons, and it is these extremes that land him in the institution.
Fun-loving until it is too late, Mercutio, Harry Ondrak-Wright; Benvolio, Adam Davies; and Balthasar, Leonardo McCorkindale, bring energy and humor as the friends and would-be protectors of the lovers, while the terrific ensemble of inmates infuses their characters with their own quirks and desires. Thus, everyone matters. Choreographically the work is clean, precise, exuberant, sexy and powerful from the beginning to the end.
A dance party planned for the inmates by the benevolent Reverend Bernadette Laurence, again an engaging Kate Lyons, runs the gamut from stiffly amusing as the party begins, to intoxicatingly unbridled as inhibitions fall and nature takes over. The choreography and lived-in performances capture all the emotion of scared, pent-up teenagers ready to burst at the seams. Here Romeo and Juliet meet, electrifying the stage with a passion that will be their undoing.
The balcony scene follows with its sumptuous score used to its every advantage, as the couple feeling the first flush of love, succumb to their new found sensuality and their first never ending kiss. From here, only tragedy awaits. Act III brings yet another stunning adagio as Romeo and Juliet now true lovers, stumble toward their inevitable fate.
Importantly, because Bourne has allowed his cast to become more than dancers, the tragedy of “Romeo + Juliet” hits hard as the audience and the cast collectively feel the despairing pain of what cruelty and misunderstanding has wrought.
Matthew Bourne stated, “In 2019, we embarked on a passionate and contemporary reimagining of this classic love story, and our journey was nothing short of spectacular.”
I couldn’t agree with him more.
Running at the Ahmanson through Feb. 25th, go see it!
The exceptional ensemble dancers are; Kurumi Kamayachi, Eleanor McGrath, Monique Jonas, Tasha Chu, Tanisha Addicott, Lyra Treglown, Matthew Amos, Eve Ngbokota, Louis Harris, Dylan Jones and Anya Ferdinand.
To learn more about Matthew Bourne New/Adventures, please visit his website.
To find out more about what is appearing at The Ahmanson Theatre, please visit their website.
Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Rory LacLeod and Monique Jonas in Romeo + Juliet by Matthew Bourne – Photo by Johan Persson