I didn’t know anything about the Peter Schaufuss Ballet Company when I booked these tickets, but it’s always good to catch some well-performed classical ballet every so often, so we thought we’d give it a go. The company is based in Denmark, and Mr Schaufuss has been Director of London Festival Ballet, Berlin Ballet and the Royal Ballet, Copenhagen. Sir Frederick Ashton’s version of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is something of a family piece, with the original Juliet being played by Peter Schaufuss’ mother, Mercutio by his father, and this current production’s Romeo being played by his son. Peter Schaufuss himself is playing the Duke and the Friar in this production. Ashton bequeathed his Romeo and Juliet to Schaufuss when he died in 1988, and one of the company’s raisons d’être is to keep Ashton’s creative spirit alive.
I did, however, find it slightly bewildering to enter the auditorium to discover this huge portrait of Peter Schaufuss on the stage, effectively hiding the set (such as it is) until curtain up. It reminded me of the ubiquitous pictures of President Assad that we saw everywhere in Syria a few years ago, subtly (or not) emphasising his dominating presence. I’m not saying Mr Schaufuss is a tyrant, I’m just saying that your average ballet-goer in Northampton would be more interested in the dancers playing the lead roles rather than the company Director. Once the picture was raised aloft from the stage, it all felt less portentous and intimidating.
The party behind us were shocked – vociferously and extendedly – that there wasn’t an orchestra and that Prokofiev’s stirring score would simply be recorded music churned out through speakers. That wasn’t an issue for us – welcome to the world of small-scale touring ballet. I was a little disappointed there wasn’t a programme though. The set consists of a plain backdrop and a few steps linking an upper platform to the stage, which provides for two separate dancing areas and four entrance/exit zones. Plenty of space for dancing, which I always think is A Good Thing. No expense spared on the costumes, however, which were elegant, refined and thoroughly beautiful. The lighting was also very evocative and rich, which helped to create mood on the otherwise featureless set. However, a lack of both programme and set can sometimes make a ballet a little hard to follow. If you didn’t know the story beforehand I think you would struggle to make sense of some of the first scenes.
We were very impressed with Luke Schaufuss as Romeo. He certainly looks the part and cuts a very dashing figure swirling his grey silky cape in a justifiably attention-seeking opening solo. His dancing throughout is excellent and he has a great stage presence. He is very well matched by his two mates, the imposing Stefan Wise as a jokey Mercutio, and Ricardo Pereira as a pally Benvolio; and the three of them dance some superb scenes together. We also thought Jordi Arnau Rubio as Tybalt was brilliant, and his swordfighting scenes with Mercutio were more dramatic and believable than many a stagey danced fight. Thaddaeus Low gave a very good performance as the spurned Paris, with a couple of very adroit solos. I reckon both of these young dancers could be Names To Watch In The Future. There was a very enjoyable performance from Yoko Takahashi as Livia, very energetic but accurate in her dancing, and Josef Vesely and Katherine Watson were a fairly terrifying Lord and Lady Capulet. I tend to watch ballet closely because I really appreciate the technical expertise of the dancing and I must say I was very impressed with the standard of ballet throughout.
But the absolute star of the performance was Ryoko Yagyu as Juliet. She had something of a shaky start when a slippery stage upended her during her first dance – although she was straight back on her feet and completed the rest of the dance perfectly. At the end of the scene she ran off into the wings in that delicate ethereal way that ballerinas have of almost disappearing into thin air, but misjudged the tiny gap available and crashed headlong into (I think) a bank of lights that created a horrendous clatter and clashing of metal offstage. That must have hurt! I half expected to see her return with her arm in a sling and wearing Pudsey’s eye patch. To be fair, she wasn’t the only cast member to come-a-cropper as they exited the stage – I guess on the first night that aspect of the performance was a little under-rehearsed.
Nevertheless she did a superb performance, with incredible pointe work, extraordinarily extended legs and a great feeling for the character. She looks really young, which emphasised the tragedy of the story and I have to say I found the end rather moving; Mrs Chrisparkle found it more dramatic instead, but at least both of us enjoyed it in our own way. You do wonder though, why on earth Juliet thought it was a good idea to take the sleeping draught; and why Romeo arrives equipped with a handy bottle of poison, ready to take his own life at a moment’s notice. Maybe it was the Elizabethan equivalent of an iPhone. He probably never went anywhere without it.
I didn’t have huge expectations of this production to be honest, but we were both very pleasantly surprised. If you enjoy your classical ballet and are happy to see it with minimal staging I’d definitely recommend this production. It’s sharing with Swan Lake this week at Northampton and then from 16th to 21st September it’s in Belfast. Well worth the trip.