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Encounters

Bad boy or Tender love?

Romeo today — By Inès Piovesan

Role-debut for one, revival for the other and a shared conviction for both dancers: the character of Romeo is one of the most daunting of the classical repertoire due to the complexity of its choreography. It is also one of the most exciting thanks to its theatrical quality. Hugo Marchand, who is performing it for the first time, and Joshua Hoffalt who has hads to step down owing to an injury, give us their impressions.    

Who is Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo?

Hugo Marchand: In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo appears in Act I as a romantic character, in love with love itself and depressed because he hasn’t got what he wants (Rosaline’s affection)… These elements are absent from the ballet. On the contrary, as soon as Romeo makes his first entry, he gives the impression of being quite narcissistic, sensitive but rather full of himself, surrounded by friends with whom he larks about. A bit of a “bad boy” really…

Joshua Hoffalt: I imagine him as naïve, and rather a nice person. Each role in this ballet represents a quality, an emotion, a facet of the human character. Romeo is purity. He takes everything at face value, spontaneously and without critical distance. He’s a dreamer.

How does one prepare for a role that is so theatrical and technically complex?

H.M.: I read the play, I went to see it at the Comédie-Française, I saw the Zeffirelli film several times, I watched a whole load of videos of the ballet… I rehearsed with Clotilde Vayer who taught me the steps and the figures. It’s only later that you learn to use your body to express such and such an emotion or feeling or, quite simply, the theatricality of a gesture. Patricia Ruanne, who took part in the original production with Nureyev, also came several times. Her explanations were real pearls of wisdom: precise, clear and helpful.

In his choreography, Nureyev created passages that are faithful, word for word, to passages in the play. For example, in the balcony scene, Romeo swears by the moon that he loves Juliet. Juliet replies, “Swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon … swear by thy gracious self…”. We use mime to translate these words. A little later, at the beginning of Act III, Juliet lies down and death begins to steal over her. Earlier in the play, Juliet says that her “grave is like to be” her “wedding bed”. There are moments when the choreography is almost a literal translation.

J.H.: For this revival, I didn’t work in at all the same way as for my role debut in 2011. The first time, I immersed myself in the play and the text and tried to have as many references as possible. This time, I did the complete opposite! I didn’t want to immerse myself in anything and instead I based my approach on Nureyev’s conception.

As far as theatricality is concerned, it’s true that we dancers don’t have the training that actors have. We have to find another form of theatrical expression, without words. I tend to rely on my own emotions and ask myself how I would feel in that situation if I were the character. With time and experience, I recognise myself less in Romeo’s character today than I did when I first took up the role. I would be more cynical than Romeo… but that doesn’t stop me from drawing on my memories to express his feelings.

Josua Hoffalt dans le rôle de Roméo
Josua Hoffalt dans le rôle de Roméo © Julien Benhamou / OnP

What role does the music play in the interpretation?

J.H.: The score is a vivid piece of narrative. There are a number of recurring themes associated with particular characters that reappear, treated in different ways, throughout the piece. This structure helps one slip into the character’s skin and plunge into the story.

H.M.: The musical line is absolutely sublime, everything is there in the notes. You can base your interpretation on it: it provokes emotions that you can use in your performance.

What is the significance of this ballet in the career of a dancer?

H.M.: It’s a ballet that I often dreamed of and I was delighted when I learnt that I was going to dance it. But it’s also a ballet that can be daunting because of its technical difficulties. I think that once you’ve played Romeo you can do anything! A two-hour performance with a complicated choreography takes a lot of stamina … it’s a huge challenge. But it’s also highly formative. The theatricality of the role also obliges us to be honest, to draw on our own emotional resources in order to flesh out the character. Which can shake you up quite a bit.

J.H.: After my very first performance in the role, I felt like a superhero! I remember thinking, “You’ve just done the most difficult ballet in the repertoire: from now on you know you can dance anything”. This ballet is like a driving force and boosts your self-confidence. The advantage when you come back to the role is that you know where the pitfalls and difficulties lie. The years go by and one learns to use less strength for certain things so as to keep it in reserve for others. Nevertheless, Romeo and Juliet is probably the most difficult ballet in the classical repertoire for male dancers. Perhaps this is where the real difficulty lies: getting the right balance between the theatrical demands of the role and the dancer’s reserves of energy. The other side of the decor is always less romantic and glamorous than what the audience sees!

Hugo Marchand en répétitions
Hugo Marchand en répétitions © Julien Benhamou / OnP

How does Romeo’s character evolve throughout the work ?

J.H.: Romeo swings from naivety to tragedy. For male performers, the most difficult passages are in the first two acts. The balance between theatre and choreography re-establishes itself gradually. The death scene is a singular moment and you need to be “in the mood” to perform this passage, which is why I don’t really like rehearsing it. It’s emotionally draining and you have to maintain a kind of spontaneity so as to offer something new at each performance. Some elements are very clear-cut: you have to die on a particular note in the score, the scene takes place on the bed at the back of the Bastille stage so you must make sure you can be seen and understood by the audience; on the other hand, we have a certain freedom to improvise; there’s room to slip in something personal.

H.M.: Everything happens very fast: the story unfolds over two days and, during this interval, Romeo falls in love, gets married, kills someone, is banished … I’m impatient to find out how I’m going to feel in this role, what my own emotional journey will be, to see how I cope with the different states that emerge inside me; how I react to the succession of pas de deux, of variations, of happy, morbid, sad or dramatic scenes… until the final moment when I kill myself.


Hugo Marchand and Joshua Hoffalt were interviewed by Inès Piovesan

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