In 2013, the Royal Swedish Ballet celebrated its 240th birthday. Never a company to be mired in tradition, RSB commissioned prolific and provocative contemporary choreographer Mats Ek to create a new version of Romeo and Juliet. True to form, Ek turned the ballet on its head, reversing the title, using new music and creating a world of simmering brutality. In recognition of his creativity, the ballet won the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production.
Until now, North American audiences haven't had a chance to see this work. Royal Swedish Ballet will give Juliet & Romeo its North American premiere June 1–4, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and June 10–12, at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, California. "Mats' version is based on the very first version of the play," says RSB artistic director Johannes Öhman, referencing an Italian story by Luigi Da Porto which pre-dates Shakespeare. "The inverted title is important because in this ballet, Juliet is absolutely the main role. The story focuses on her perspective." It also conjures a modern cityscape—rather than courtly Verona—with its stark lighting, shifting walls and pedestrian costumes.
Photo by Carl Thorborg, Courtesy Royal Swedish Ballet.
Ek chose to create his ballet—performed in technique shoes and barefoot, rather than on pointe—to a composite score by Tchaikovsky, instead of the Prokofiev score used by Sir Kenneth MacMillan and others. "It might be surprising, especially for a knowledgeable ballet audience," Öhman says. "But Tchaikovsky's music fits Mats' revised storyline."
The RSB hasn't visited the Kennedy Center in over 15 years, and Öhman is excited to bring such a new work to the U.S. "The company has a very close, collaborative relationship with Mats," he says. "His style is direct and progressive, and it's a big honor for RSB to perform at such an important venue."
It's a unique opportunity for audiences, too. Ek, who announced his retirement in January, will take the rights to his choreography with him. RSB is licensed to perform Juliet & Romeo for two more years, but after that it might be a long time before the ballet visits North America again.