Juliet and Romeo by Mats Ek

Post-coital pas de deux: Juliet and Romeo / Pic: Gert Weigelt
© Gert Weigelt

Juliet and Romeo – Ballet in 2 Acts

choreography by Mats Ek
on music by Tchaikovsky
performed by Royal Swedish Ballet and Royal Swedish Orchestra
staging design by Magdalena Agberg
recorded in 2014 at the Royal Opera House in London
Juliet: Mariko Kida
Romeo: Anthony Lomuljo
Mercutio: Jérôme Marchand
Nurse: Ana Laguna

I just watched Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo. Genius, genius, genius. It took me some time to get what he was doing, but when I got it, I was awed by his accomplishment.

Movements in his choreography are sometimes very easy to recognize, at first you think it’s mime, they look like everyday gestures we use – but with them come others, that look odd, out of place, quirky. The kind of movement changes fast, alternates to completely different ideas, or moods or feelings. In the beginning I was confused. In fact I was so lost I gave up trying to understand, and just watched the dancers. It was real pleasure to look at them, they are excellent, these wonderful Swedish! Weird as some movements were, they performed them such with amazing clarity and easiness, their competence turning even the strangest one into beauty.

Of course I had seen many ballet versions of R&J, several movies and read the bard’s play itself, but at this point I had stopped analyzing and comparing. I had emptied my mind, dropped all pre-existing notions, and was just enjoying the dancers’ work. And then… it started to work: I realized I “knew”, I could clearly understand what the characters were feeling!

Mats Ek wasn’t telling a story. Or better said, he was, but not through facts, not in the objective, external world. He did it through the feelings of the characters. And not through our socially deeply codified body-language, like when you wave your hand meaning “good bye”, but by using a far more instinctive one, that makes you press a hand to your stomach when you receive a brutal emotional blow.

But there is more. His “text” is not prose, it is poetry, and again not a sonnet, but the most radical free verse poetry. You cannot apprehend it by reading one word, and then the next, and the next, carefully chaining one to the other, following step by step the a nexus inscribed in them by the poet. It’s the kind of poetry that you (must) read without searching for sense, you must read bypassing your analytical mind and just let the words – juxtaposed together without apparent sense – sink in. What the poet wants to impart is not reachable using logical reasoning, but taking in the rhythm, the sound, what each word fleetingly evokes – and somehow, as you read, the underlying sense starts to be unveiled, you will be told something without the need to “think” about. What will come out is not a story, or a precise idea, but something wider and less precise, and usually deeper: a notion, a mood, a feeling.

© Dave Morgan

Mats Ek choreographic text is like that. Even recognizable gestures are not the gestures themselves, as are not the few objects on stage: they represent related feelings. His talent for finding new expressive gestures is uncanny, as if he is creating new words for things left unsaid before for lack of a noun, but quite real. Or in a sequence of gestures, we need their ensemble to understand. Attempt to “understand” each movement is pointless, we must just let impressions flow, absorb them without thinking – and suddenly we “know” what he wanted to impart!

A plot told through feelings!

Forget about balconies and beds, flasks of poison and swords, genius dialogs or rituals. What we see is another level of reality, that happens inside people and will LEAD them to objective action – but this action is not shown on stage. Objects and factual social interaction are in another sphere of reality. We are given the psychological and affective dynamic of the characters, how they act and react emotionally, their motivations, their internal life.


Can a story be told that way? Oh, yes, Mats Ek proves it can, and quite clearly!

But why odd movements, why surprising and contradictory messages? Because this is how we feel. Our emotions are not nicely behaved, some feelings are unexpected, some are contradictory, even embarrassing. We often have feelings we can’t even put a name on. We feel many things at the same time, what we feel is not linear, has many facets, doesn’t fit rational logic, we are, all the time, a cauldron where many ingredients boil in an emotional soup. Sounds too complex? It is, if you try to track down and rationally explain each element, but whatever is there, sums up to a defined taste, an internal sense, even if ingredients are not all identifiable, even if it looks bizarre from the outside.

Believe me or not, Mats Ek conveys all this in his choreography. It’s true there were moments where he lost me, but they were few, really very few. It is a radically subjective work, and needs to be apprehended through our subjectivity too, or will seem absurd. But once you see the play for what it is… yes! yes, yes, YES!

There is a problem, however: it is hard to describe. And THIS! This is one of dance’s specific values, a fundamental value, and one that Ek took to new heights: Dance can show what words cannot, dance tells of things our rational discourse, with all its beautiful words and complex concepts, can’t handle, and our social selves must ignore (or our lives would turn into chaotic Babel Towers). In dance the message reaches us directly, doesn’t need reason, doesn’t need most of our conventions and codes, including language. I don’t dare try describing what the characters felt, what I saw in them, but of course, it couldn’t be different – there is a gap between dance and text – these two fundamentally different ways of expression.

Professional critics have a big problem. They must write wisely and with intelligence about art (or what should be art). They prepare themselves for that, I imagine. As soon as the curtain opens, they switch on their analytical minds, searching for things they can describe and state with competence – objectivity turned on at full power.
The “magic” of art, however, is hard to describe in words, and hard to understand if you were not there – maybe the reason why so few reviewers even try (and maybe the reason they are surprised that public reacted in quite a different way).  For a long time now I have been criticizing critics and their excessively analytic predisposition. They frequently see the elements and don’t see the whole. They frequently see some elements and others not. They frequently just look for flaws, so much easier to identify. They frequently see what they expected to see, and are blind to anything else. And when they are at a loss, they use labels applied by others before them, to just get it over!
Now, in a work like THIS, what can we expect of this kind of reviewer? Of course few of them were willing to switch off reason, and subjectively (and passively!) wait for Ek’s sense to come to them.

So you will have them judging what they see at eye’s value. Juliet moves awkwardly because adolescents move awkwardly – good job, Ek!
“It’s in the person of Juliet that we see Ek’s choreography at its most subtle and tender. He doesn’t spare us the awkwardness and grotesqueries of adolescence. She pulls daft faces and throws weird shapes; at times she’s all twitching, puppyish impatience.”

Another one:
“The decision to ignore the sleeping potion twist speeds up the plot but denies Juliet her pivotal moment of choice, and diminishes the horror of the lovers’ deaths.”

IMHO, Juliet’s choice is a crystal clear and powerful moment, in fact one of the best, but the writer didn’t notice…

This one is worse:
“It’s also, in my view, disappointingly dull. While much that I heard beforehand about the winner of the 2015 Olivier Award sounded enticing, the choreography comes across as puzzlingly clunky, as if awkward gestures were haphazardly strung together. I didn’t sense any flow to the dancing, and the storyline is difficult to follow. I waited in vain for a friar and a vial of poison.
I failed to connect emotionally to the dancing, but I do not fault the dancers for my lack of feeling. For that, I blame the choreography alone. The dancers looked lovely and appeared well-trained, it’s what they were doing that bored me. For example, there’s a lot of rolling on the floor, arms held close the body, like so many logs, as well as running in place, legs kicking up to one’s rear. Overall, the movement is unexciting, basic, and sometimes crude (more than once someone raises a middle finger or grabs a crotch). If you’re looking for pretty and/or intricate movement on pointe, you won’t find it here.”

No, you won’t find it here. Definitely not. Not because Mats Ek failed, but because he succeeded.

No wonder Ek became eventually so dismayed he decided to retire and forbade his ballets to be performed, end point!

He should instead (please, Mats Ek!) explain what he’s doing, help people understand, prepare them for his play(s) – after all, it’s a deeply unconventional approach. I perceived what he intended by sheer luck, because I had put aside pre-existing notions, was watching with “innocence”. I’m not bragging, quite the opposite, I’m no art expert, ballet expert or in any other way better prepared to evaluate a performance. It only enhances Mats Ek feat, does it not?

I’m grateful and relieved: he recently changed his mind, and is working again! Yeaahhh!