Queensland Ballet’s superlative Australian premiere of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet in 2014 was a triumph of synergy, spearheaded by superstar guests. Five years on, the remounted production is again world class, but this time the result is the sum of the company’s parts – unaugmented by imports in the principal roles and students making up the requisite 40 dancers.

Patricio Revé and Mia Heathcote in Queensland Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet. Photo © David Kelly

In what was then only the second year of his tenure, QB Artistic Director Li Cunxin’s ambition saw him tackle the monumental challenge of MacMillan’s legendary interpretation – which saw Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev take a staggering 43 curtain calls on its opening night in 1965 – with just 24 company dancers. With characteristic resourcefulness, he found a way to pull it off, and in resounding fashion.

In 2019 QB has 43 professional company members, so not only does it have the depth to fill both lead roles without employing the added allure and safety net of international drawcards (it had seven principals in 2014 and has five now), it can also supply the full complement of corps dancers, leaving the less demanding parts to students.

So while last time the focus sat firmly on the principals, soloists and character artists, what I found on this occasion was that the corps work made much more of an impression from the outset. The speed, sharpness and chromatic contrasts of MacMillan’s group choreography, attacked with verve and precision, jumped out at me. Perhaps my now being acquainted with the ballet meant all aspects were registering more strongly, but I also suspect that the company’s familiarity with the work allowed MacMillan stager Julie Lincoln to extract more from all ranks, aided by ex-Royal Ballet principal (and Rockhampton native) Leanne Benjamin’s addition as principal coach. These scenes were exhilarating in their entirety. The exciting sword fighting, again directed and staged by MacMillan veteran Gary Harris, became an extension of this mood rather than coming across as just a highlight.

The company in Queensland Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet. Photo © David Kelly

In 2014, the star-crossed lovers were made up of a guest artist teamed with a QB principal. This time round, the company drew on its own ranks for both roles. The teaming of soloist Mia Heathcote with company artist Patricio Revé was so apt and revelatory that it culminated with both being promoted onstage at the performance’s conclusion.

We’re used to seeing mature artists portray the titular teens from warring families but it may be that the intrinsic characteristics of youth – or its visual credibility – can outshine the benefits of experienced artistic brilliance that nonetheless requires a greater suspension of disbelief.

If any ballet motivates audiences to want to see emerging talents given the opportunity to blossom into spellbinding dramatic storytellers before our eyes, it is Romeo & Juliet.

It’s one thing to portray the characters with emotional conviction and technical assurance, another to depict an instant and urgent depth of attraction and passion so overwhelming that life is not worth living without it. Heathcote and Revé master all these things.

Patricio Revé and Mia Heathcote in Queensland Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet. Photo © David Kelly

MacMillan’s glorious choreography for the lovers is poetically articulate, elegantly communicating their feelings with the clarity and eloquence of Shakespeare’s text. The style is natural and effortless, and the pas de deux divine, drawing viewers into their emotional orbit. We feel as much as we see – the magnetic attraction and rush of blood in Juliet’s giddy flush and Romeo jumping out of his skin, the lit fuse of ignited passion leading to the wrench of separation, desperation and despair.

Juliet’s journey has the added complexity of transitioning from a girl playing games with her nurse, to thwarting her parents’ matchmaking in the ultimate act of teen rebellion.

Since joining QB straight from The Australian Ballet School, Heathcote has shown lovely promise in featured roles, but Juliet has allowed her to tap into the full range of her talent in a true breakout performance. She is a perfect Juliet in appearance and expression.

Adding another layer of veritas and appeal is having her actual father, former Australian Ballet star Steven Heathcote, portray her Lord Capulet. The rare situation is special for them and audiences.

Also revelling in revisiting and further developing their pivotal characters are former QB principal Rachael Walsh in her scene-stealing role as the enigmatic Lady Capulet, QB ballet mistress Janette Mulligan as Juliet’s Nurse, and soloist Vito Bernasconi as Capulet son and brother Tybalt. It’s intriguing to observe the nuance and subtext permeating the family’s interactions.

Kohei Iwamoto, Patricio Revé and Alexander Idaszak in Queensland Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet. Photo © David Kelly

The other key dynamic is the trouble-making teen trio of Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio. Revé, Kohei Iwamoto and Alexander Idaszak have the advantage of looking believable as fast friends and are also well matched in abilities. Their showy pas de trois of jumps and pirouettes in attitude is deceptively tricky in regard to timing and spacing. While they projected bravado, as in 2014 it proved difficult to completely nail.

Mercutio is the ballet’s most colourful part, and in the initial 2014 production, guest artist Australian Ballet principal Daniel Gaudiello was irreverent and dashing. Iwamoto’s characterisation isn’t as flashy, but it fits the strong ensemble feel of this incarnation.

That sense extends to the mood created by Queensland Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Alondra de la Parra’s inspired interpretation of Prokofiev’s iconic score, which reveals illuminating detail.

The sets and costumes imported from Uruguay include some interesting design choices – the Mandolin attire reminiscent of the Hyundai Kona advertisement proving divisive – and don’t match the majesty of those borrowed from Birmingham Ballet in 2014, so they serve a supporting rather starring role.

My only other slight reservation is that in the denouement Heathcote and Revé appeared to rely on an external expression of their grief, but the intensity of their approach is sure to develop over the run.

In the five years since I declared this production QB’s best ever, the company has provided strong competition for this claim. However, what remains certain is that MacMillan’s ballet is effortlessly engaging and close to perfect and the company again does it justice, impressing with an exceptional team effort across the board.


Queensland Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet is at Lyric Theatre, QPAC until September 7

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