Mary Brennan

It's now twenty years or more since a little girl, stifling fits of giggles, gave choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot some useful food for thought. The memory comes swiftly to mind as he explains that "when my daughter - who is called Juliet, by the way - was six years old, I took her to see a very traditional version of Romeo and Juliet. During the sword-fighting between the Capulets and Montagues. I heard her giggling. She just couldn't believe in it. It looked like pretend play-acting to her, it made the whole story lose all truth for her. I thought 'how many other, older audiences feel exactly the same?' - only they wouldn't laugh out loud!" Guess what? There are no cod duels-by-numbers in Maillot's version of Romeo and Juliet. No period-costumed pomp and pageantry. His whole focus in on the lovers themselves, on the hot surge of teenage lust that powers them into the grip of first - and tragically, last - love.

It's the urgent honesty, the radical non-formulaic choreography, that led Northern Ballet's artistic director David Nixon to choose Maillot's Romeo and Juliet to mark the company's 45th anniversary. The work will have its UK premiere at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre next week. Nixon is, however, quick to reassure Northern Ballet's loyal followers that an earlier (and much-loved) Romeo and Juliet - created by Christopher Gable, Massimo Morricone and Lez Brotherston - is not about to drop out of the company's repertoire.

"I was looking for a production that would provide a complete contrast and different point of view for our audiences, and for our dancers." he says. Bringing in Maillot's Romeo and Juliet makes the 45th anniversary occasion more about looking forward than a look back - and Nixon is unsentimental when he adds: "I wanted the dancers to have something new to test themselves against. They already know how I work, what my choreography feels like, even at its most demanding. Jean-Christophe's work brings a contemporary response to a classic piece, it asks very different - difficult, even strange - things of them. That's what we're going to take into our future. Their experiences with him will - and I know this from my own career as a dancer - make them more aware of what their bodies can do, and they will take that understanding back, into their purely classical performances. I did."

What Maillot's choreography requires, however, is more than just a mastery of steps. His vision of Romeo and Juliet needs not just the two leading soloists, but the entire company, to be totally inside situations and emotions that he considers timeless. "I don't have a historical context for the characters," he says. "And I avoid the social conflict between these families, the Montagues and Capulets. Instead, my concentration is on Romeo and Juliet, two young people - they are only 14 or 15 years old - who fall in love. That becomes their world. Not Verona. I have a very abstract set so that audiences can also get away from Verona. My ideal, really, is to liberate the stage from everything that is not absolutely necessary. That way, the space is open for the dancers, and for the emotions that are the reason we go to this story."

Back in 1986, when Maillot was choreographer and director of the Ballet du Grand Théâtre in Tours, he staged a version of Romeo and Juliet with only 12 dancers and an electronic score. Necessity was the dynamic behind his paring away of everything other than the inner turmoils and naive, unbridled passions of two inexperienced teenagers. A decade later, when Maillot was settled into his current role as artistic director of Les Ballets des Monte Carlo - where he has been successfully transforming its repertoire and reputation since 1993 - he revisited his earlier ideas. This time he had more than three times as many dancers to call upon, and he chose to use the Prokofiev score so beloved of choreographers worldwide since the late 1930's.

Didn't the intrinsic narrative, the defined motifs and light and shade of the music go against his own post-modern grain? On the contrary, it seems.

"There are moments," he says, "when the music is so full of what the characters are feeling, that making the dancers move around just for the sake of it is not just unnecessary, but destructive." That is not the same as saying the dancers are doing nothing. Even in moments of held stillness, Maillot requires them to be thinking in character. That means feeling whatever the emotions are, not as an adult with life experience and hindsight, but as a teenage boy or girl caught between adolescence and the onset of emerging maturity.

"It's how the body responds," he says. "We have to see that, recognise it, remember it within ourselves. Before the brain can even think of rationalising things, the body is reacting. This girl you've just met, this wonderful girl you've just fallen in love with, she actually touches your hand - and you get goose-bumps the moment she does it. Your skin comes alive, everything comes alive - and somehow, it is so very pure. Pure because it's a totally new place, this first love. It will never - and everyone in the audience knows this - feel exactly like this ever again. So I tell my dancers: on-stage, you must behave naturally. The steps, when they come, are a consequence of how you feel. It's like I want the choreography to disappear so that only the people themselves matter. There are no typical props that they can hide behind: no swords, no little poison vials, just that journey where, one day, you and your friends are having fun - and the somebody dies and life is not a game anymore."

Maillot won't actually be in Edinburgh for Northern Ballet's opening night. He'll be in Japan with his own company, fulfilling yet another touring engagement that flags up the high-end status this tiny principality's national ballet now enjoys. One question, however, still begs to be asked. How did his own daughter, Juliet, respond to his version of a ballet that had made her laugh? His own voice is tinged with laughter as he replies. "Oh, she saw mine, maybe two years after that one - and she cried! At the end, she was totally in tears because she had really cared for Romeo and Juliet, and I think she would have liked a happier ending for them."

Jean-Christophe Maillot's Romeo and Juliet has its UK premiere at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre as part of Northern Ballet's 45th anniversary repertoire. It runs from Thursday February 26 to Saturday 28.