Dance review: Romeo and Juliet

Grandeur reigns as John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet returns to the Australian stage.

The Australian Ballet first performed the Cranko version of Romeo and Juliet in 1974 but it was last performed it 19 years, and now offers a grandeur and a rich sense of tradition to close the company’s 2022 season. 

In his opening address, Artistic Director David Hallberg drew attention to the heritage of the classic. The original set and costume design from Jürgen Rose establish a familiar image of Verona, and Sergei Prokofiev’s infamous score, imbued with the terror and weight of 1930s Soviet Russia, guides the audience through the lovers’ four-day journey from infatuation to tragedy.

Guest repetiteurs Mark Kay and Yseult Lendvai (Cranko’s Juliet for the Vienna Opera Ballet), Principal Coach Fiona Tonkin and Ballet Master Steven Heathcote, who have both danced the title roles, bring their own histories to the 2022 rendition. Despite this rich history, this production of Romeo and Juliet comes with a long list of debuts, giving Cranko’s masterpiece renewed vitality.

In the opening marketplace brawl, the audience gets its first taste of standout Principal Artist Brett Chynoweth as Mercutio. His boisterous but flirty play-fight involving a cooking pan is a hidden joy in the violent quarrel, and his later solo misdirecting guests at the Capulets’ ball is masterful.

With Chynoweth’s clear characterisation and presence, Mercutio’s death threatens to overshadow the coming double suicide. As his glee falters and his merry theme in Prokofiev’s score shifts, we witness heartbreaking tenderness between friends Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio in his final moments.

Making their debuts in title roles, Callum Linnane and Sharni Spencer offer convincing character development and display the exceptional talent that saw them promoted to principal artists earlier in the year.

Spencer beautifully captures Juliet’s innocence with a light wonder as she receives her first ball dress, which moves to tragic intimacy in her only embrace with Lady Capulet and strength that grows from the moment her mother pushes her to the floor. Spencer’s sharp and meticulous footwork is a particular delight, with her charming evasion of Lord Paris at the Capulets’ ball bringing chuckles from the opening night crowd.

We see Romeo’s growth in Linnane’s shift from uncertainty and naivety to turmoil. His forceful murder of Tybalt and desperate confrontation with Lord Paris is a far cry from his coy glances and playful gallops, chiffon and eyeline held high. Yet Linnane’s opening night performance lacks the raw vulnerability he offered in Alice Topp’s Annealing and the mightiness he displayed as Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina.

Rose’s set aids swift story progression, well supported by lighting design from Jon Buswell. Juliet’s candlelit procession, for example, concludes effectively as Spencer is lowered into the cavernous tomb, tragically foreshadowing the lonely deaths to come. Costuming likewise aids narrative clarity, clearly distinguishing house and class, and the lovers’ emotional journeys.

Read: Exhibition Review: HOME|LAND

Though it may lack the force of Instruments of Dance’s exploration of movement and Kunstkamer’s departure from established tropes, Romeo and Juliet will delight balletomanes. It rounds out the traditional part of the 2022 season, with a return to the dramatic tragedy of Anna Karenina and the impressive show-and-tell of skill in Harlequinade.

Romeo and Juliet
The Australian Ballet with Orchestra Victoria
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Choreography: John Cranko
Guest Repetiteur and Stager: Yseult Lendvai
Guest Repetiteur: Mark Kay
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Costume and set design: Jürgen Rose
Lighting design: Jon Buswell

Romeo and Juliet will be performed at the Arts Centre, Melbourne until 19 October 2022, with a livestream on 18 October, before touring to Sydney from 1–21 December.

Savannah Indigo is a researcher and copywriter, trained in publishing, dance, literature and law. Passionate about gender issues and promoting equity through tech design, she has researched Indigenous Data Sovereignty for the Commission for Gender Equality in the Public Sector and is developing a paper about harassment in the Metaverse. She has written for Brow Books, Books+Publishing magazine, The Journal of Supernatural Literature (Deakin University) and the Science and Technology Law Association, and is a 2022 Hot Desk Fellow at The Wheeler Centre.