The Geneva Ballet, or to give the troupe its proper name, the Ballet du Grande Theatre de Geneve, are making their Taiwan premiere this weekend at the National Theater with a very contemporary production of Romeo and Juliet by Joelle Bouvier.
The 51-year-old company was founded by the Grand Theatre de Geneva to mark its 1962 reopening after the building, first opened in 1876, was partially destroyed by a fire. The company has always focused on neo-classical and contemporary ballets, rather than the romantic classics like Swan Lake, with productions from choreographers ranging from George Balanchine to Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Saburo Teshigawara and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
The troupe already had a Romeo and Juliet in its repertoire — American Robert North’s 1990 version — when Philippe Cohen, who had become artistic director in 2003, approached Swiss-born, Paris-based choreographer Bouvier about creating something for the company.
She told him that she was interested in doing a Romeo and Juliet using Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s score. It turned out that was what Cohen had in mind as well.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has provided inspiration for writers, composers and directors for hundreds of years. In the 20th century, the tale of star-crossed lovers became a popular choice for choreographers and ballet companies in Europe and the US, many of whom chose to work with the score Prokofiev finished in 1935.
The irony is that Prokofiev had composed the ballet for the Bolshoi Ballet, who rejected it as undanceable. He then reworked the score for the Kirov Ballet, and it is from that production that the suites that have since become the favorite of choreographers have been drawn.
For her 2009 production, Bouvier chose to work with extracts from the three suites of the score, since her vision was of a stripped-down story that focused on the two teenage lovers and the deadly confrontation between Tybalt and Mercutio that is the trigger for the events that eventually lead to the young lovers’ deaths.
She has also dropped many of the ancillary characters in the story — Romeo and Juliet’s parents, Friar Lawrence and Juliet’s nurse — not only because they were unnecessary for her vision, but because with just 22 dancers, the company could not do a full-blown, multi-act ballet. As it is, most of the dancers have multiple roles.
She also went for minimalism in the stage design and costumes (for which she shares partial credit). The ballet is not set in a specific period, though the outfits are modern. The only set piece is a sweeping curve that turns the center of the stage into an arena, appropriate given all the fighting that goes on between the Montagues and Capulets. The dancers go barefoot, the women clad in slip dresses, the men in shirts and slacks.
Bouvier’s production centers on the timeless theme of mismatched lovers. In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet were not supposed to fall in love because their families were enemies. In real life, lovers are divided by religion, class, nationality or the color of their skin. It has happened for thousands of years and continues today.
The ballet runs an hour and 15 minutes, with no intermission.