Wherefore Art Thou, National Ballet of Canada?

In downtown L.A. where the Toronto-based company will stage <em>Romeo and Juliet</em>

Two years ago the National Ballet of Canada delighted audiences with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The troupe, under artistic director Karen Kain, brought Lewis Carroll’s tale to life—complete with a psychotic Queen of Hearts, Mad Hatter, Cheshire cat, and White Rabbit. Now the company is back with its full-length production of Romeo and Juliet from the granddaddy of literature—or rather, an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s famous love story by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. Beginning Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, principal dancer Guillaume Côté and first soloist Elena Lobsanova perform the title roles. The company is here for five performances through Sunday matinee. We spoke with the stars just before they took the stage.

What are you conveying through your roles as Romeo and Juliet, and how do you bring these characters to life for a 21st-century audience?
Guillaume Côté: I hope to convey Romeo as a young and hopeless romantic who is overcome by a tidal wave of enthusiasm about love and life when he meets Juliet. Romeo is innocent but not foolish. He understands the weight of his actions but chooses to ignore familial pressures and love a Capulet, his so-called enemy. I feel like Romeo’s enduring quality of being a lover is timeless and easily resonates in the 21st century. People who show us that love is always stronger than hate are the ones who really make a difference in the world.

Elena Lobsanova: I’m hoping to convey Juliet’s entire essence—her life’s journey and the way it affects all of the people around her. Juliet’s core belief is that love has the power to change and endure anything. The magnitude of her faith is very honorable and rare, and I want to remind people that it still exists and is relevant in the 21st century. The play’s unifying message of faith and love is very inspiring.

What do you enjoy or find challenging about Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography?
GC: Ratmansky’s production is an incredible technical feat. As Romeo, I’m onstage for most of the production, which is challenging, but it helps that Ratmansky has created some of the most beautiful and expressive choreography that I’ve ever had the pleasure to dance. The pas de deuxs are challenging, but they convey a wonderful sense of lightness and youth. Each movement is filled with an intense musicality and subtleness that I still discover in different ways each time I dance the role. The production requires an incredible amount of dedication from everyone onstage, and I love the way Ratmansky stays away from traditional mime and uses dance to tell the entire story. 

EL: I love Ratmansky’s imaginative interpretations and the range of freedom that his choreography gives me technically and artistically. When I created the role for the world premiere in 2011, Guillaume and I hadn’t partnered together before, and it was challenging because I like to work at a pace that allows me to nail my technique and then layer the artistic elements into the choreography. Having to add partnering on top of that was a bit difficult for me. Another obstacle for me was keeping up with the choreography and refining the artistic learning process.

How do you feel you’ve grown into the role since then?
EL: Dancing Juliet has become second nature to me. There is a wide range of emotional and technical dance vocabulary behind each of Juliet’s movements in this ballet. Each time I dance this role, I try to use different dimensions of my imagination to form new and subtle interpretations while staying true to Ratmansky’s original choreography. It’s always a very cathartic experience to dance Juliet and explore the different depths of her movement. 

Guillaume, as a musician and composer yourself, how do you feel while performing to Sergei Prokofiev’s famous score?
GC: Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet is by far one of the most beautiful scores ever written for ballet. The unexpected changes in harmony mixed with the beautifully intertwined melodic lines go straight to the heart. Even for someone just listening to the score on its own, the melodic development is so clear that it can carry the story by itself. There is also so much depth behind the overall tone of the score that it allows the audience to connect and identify with these very real and human emotions. It is one of the most inspiring scores to dance to. 

Los Angeles audiences saw you perform the role of Jack/the Knave of Hearts in 2012 in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. How does that piece compare to Romeo and Juliet?
GC: I’m so happy that Los Angeles is getting a chance to see the National Ballet of Canada in two very different works. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an incredibly crafted production. Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography is very lavish and theatrical. I’m so grateful to have been given the chance to dance such a stunning work in L.A. Romeo and Juliet is a very different kind of production. In comparison to Alice, it’s quite bare and more emotionally driven. Because Ratmansky uses mostly dance versus mime to tell the narrative, it gives each cast a great platform to show L.A. audiences our technical abilities.

Elena, how do you train for lead roles like this?
EL: A common element of all of the featured roles that I’ve performed (Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Olga in Onegin, among others) is that each character starts out with very fast-paced and dynamic movements and then transitions into slower, more self-aware, and deliberately dramatic movements. The emotional and technical range enhances the musicality of the production; you can really sense the shift in tone. When I’m rehearsing for these kinds of roles, the technique refines itself naturally through my telling of the story. I like to translate the narrative through my footwork or body movements similar to how an actor recites the lines of a play. In dance it’s more than just learning the choreography. I try and think really hard about my character’s motivations and try to feel and integrate all of the other dimensions of the craft to tell the complete story.