We were wowed in 2017 with the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Romeo & Juliet. If you think you know what to expect, think again: this new version takes things up a notch, with more contemporary choreography by Andrea Schermoly, and Academy Award-winning designer James Acheson in New Zealand this time to adapt and refine his work. The result is one of the great romantic ballets, even more poignant than what fans saw six years ago.
Set to the Sergei Prokofiev score, Schermoly reimagines the ballet perfectly. She has created two of the most beautiful and romantic pas de deux we’ve seen (Romeo and Juliet’s first night, where you’re wondering when the first kiss might happen; and after the couple wed), absolute joy (Mercutio’s antics are infections), and despair (Juliet’s descent as she is forced to marry Paris). There are moments of levity (a pas de trois with Romeo and his friends preparing to go to the Capulet ball) and drama (the Capulets pushing their daughter to marry their chosen suitor). ‘Dance of the Knights’ has never been complemented with a finer ensemble number. Schermoly’s movements are beautiful and flowing; and the sword fights thrill. This is a romantic, classical ballet at its heart but it feels contemporary. Even when you know the story you are on the edge of your seat watching the drama play out.
Acheson’s costumes were as stunning as ever but it is his puzzle-box sets that open and close, walls that spin and elements rising and falling, that raises the stakes in the 2023 reimagining of Romeo & Juliet. If we called the 2017 production RNZB’s ‘grandest yet’ then this 2023 version requires a greater superlative.
The score was performed on opening night by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, played to perfection and conducted by the remarkable Hamish McKeich.
And tonight might have seen the careers of several dancers rise. It’s a case of ‘Let’s hear it for the boys.’
We already know what the expressive and poignant Katherine Minor, tonight’s Juliet, is capable of; her 2018 performance as Marie in The Nutcracker comes to mind. But a skilled, seasoned lead needs a capable Romeo, and the RNZB has cracked it with Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, whom we last saw as the Prince in Cinderella (2022). There, Guillemot-Rodgerson was secondary to Cinderella herself; you could argue that this was his first true leading role, certainly the first we’ve seen. And he knocks it out of the park. Energetic, graceful and charming, Guillemot-Rodgerson is one to watch in future ballets. He’s a Qi Huan in the making—he’s that good.
As is Kihiro Kusukami, whom we first saw in The Nutcracker, now a principal with the company and it’s easy to see why. As Mercutio, he had a much larger role, and he has honed his skills—enough again for us to call him one to watch. If you were Romeo, you’d want a mate like this to have your back.
Lucire fashion and beauty ed. Sopheak Seng, who attended the première with me, considers Laurynas Vėjalis a fine dancer, and perfect as the irritable Tybalt. Finally, British import Damani Campbell Williams is convincing as the tough and dignified Lord Capulet.
Of course all the main roles were played with aplomb—Shaun James Kelly as Benvolio, Kirby Selchow as Rosaline, Sara Garbowski as Lady Capulet, among others. But we had never noticed just how sharp the talents of Guillemot-Rodgerson, Kusukami and Williams were before, and here, given a chance to shine, the gentlemen have grabbed it with passion.
It is an unmissable ballet, one that Ryman Healthcare and Avis should be delighted to support. Romeo & Juliet tours nationally, beginning with Wellington tonight (May 4), and finishing in Napier on June 10. Full details of all the dates in Wellington, Auckland, Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North and Napier can be found at rnzb.org.nz.
Jack Yan is founder and publisher of Lucire.