Ballet in three acts based on the play by William Shakespeare
Prokofiev’s lengthy score finds its ideal match in Rudolf Nureyev’s highly cinematographic, sumptuous and colourful production: with its scenery and costumes straight out of Italian Renaissance paintings.
After Lavroski’s version, one of the most outstanding choreographies is that of John Cranko; written in 1958 for the Scala Ballet in Milan, with Carla Fracci and Mario Pistoni. Rudolf Nureyev was to retain his aspect of portraying the Italian Renaissance, staging youthful love sacrificed to the hatred of adults; the light-heartedness of Mercutio corresponding to the surly disposition of Tybalt as an echo of the quarrels between the two enemy families.
Kenneth MacMillan’s version, one that Nureyev knew well as he created it with Margot Fonteyn at the London Royal Ballet in 1965, emphasizes the fatal character of the tragedy; two young people being swept along by a destiny which finally overtakes them. The choreographer shows a particular interest in Juliet; this child that becomes a woman as the action progresses. Strong in her weakness, she demonstrates an unshakeable determination to resist the fate that her parents are forcing on her.
Rudolf highlighted this point even further, making Juliet a rebel prepared to brave the codes of her class. Full of ardour and noise, in a realistic Verona where squares swelter in the sun and serve as permanent stages for an entire quarrelsome, colourful population, his ballet which is extremely faithful to Shakespeare’s text, gives an almost cinematographic vision of a sensual, brutal, refined and willingly bawdy era, where life and death are decided in an instant. J.L.B.
ROMEO AND JULIET AS SEEN BY RUDOLF NUREYEV
“Romeo and Juliet is the story of a young boy who becomes a man. As a teenager, he chases after all the girls, but it’s not long before he no longer wants to make do with the beautiful but cold women that he meets, or the platonic love lives they make him lead. He wants to experience stronger feelings. Juliet brings everything to a head for him. She’s passionate, willing, and more mature than he is… I’m convinced that Renaissance Verona and Elizabethan London, in a society divided between old superstitions and a hunger for the new world, had sex and violence in common; which, oddly enough, links them to our times.” Rudolf Nureyev.
Based on the 52 movements that make up the complete score, Nureyev’s choreography is composed of theatrical realism and historical sequence. Capulet and Montague oppose one another like rival gangs in the market place, knocking over fruit and vegetables, and lewd gestures abound. Here, the mandolin players are flag throwers as for the “Palio” in Sienna, rather than beribboned young ladies.
Mercutio’s death is extremely well done. In his duel with Tybalt, Mercutio pretends to be wounded only to recover ever more insolent, making his friends laugh. So when he is mortally wounded, everyone still believes that it is all a joke and makes fun of him, when, in reality, he is giving up the ghost.
Tybalt’s death brings with it another very intense effect. In other versions, it is Lady Capulet who comes to weep over the body of her nephew. Here, it is Juliet who is the focus of attention. She appears suddenly as if carried along in a nightmare: Romeo who she has just secretly married has become the murderer of her cousin. This irreversible action and the sight of widespread blood sends her into a state of “shock”; her gestures are those of someone trying to free themselves from this blood bath, a blood that is slimy and sticks to the skin. And, blaming the two families for their fatal quarrels, she cleaves the air with her arms in semblance of slapping both parties around the face. No-one around her is moving: to use cinematographic jargon, the “frame freezes”, making Juliet’s isolated drama stand out (in some way similar to the “madness” of Giselle). Death is omnipresent; both materially and figuratively speaking. The curtain rises, at the very beginning, on a funeral procession: it is the early hours and some monks are pushing a cart of corpses, beyond the town walls, taking away the bodies of those who killed one another the day before.
Then, in front of the house of the Capulets, Romeo, Mercutio and their friends are having a good time mimicking the guests as they make their entrance, when a beggar calls out to them holding out his hand. Romeo allows himself to feel sorry and gives him a gold coin. On receiving this unexpected charity, the unfortunate man suffocates and dies.
Romeo “means well”, but “born under an unlucky star” (symbolized at the opening and closing of the show by the group of four men of Destiny playing dice) each time he makes a move, it results in death: the beggar, Tybalt, Paris and Juliet.
In Act III, Juliet shut up in her room has a premonition of her wedding with death (a skeleton lies on top of her): “I’ll go to my wedding-bed; And death not Romeo, take my maidenhead” writes Shakespeare.
Nureyev provides many personal touches that are just not to be found in the versions by other choreographers. One instance, he portrays Juliet whose parents are forcing her to marry Paris, not knowing in her confusion what to choose: the dagger with which to kill herself, or the potion, given to her by Brother Lawrence, which promises after a deep sleep making believe she is dead, to then bring her back to life. Dreaming, she sees the ghost of Tybalt appear holding out the dagger (suicide), and that of Mercutio inviting her to drink the potion (to stay alive).
Once again the process, a character’s thoughts intruding on the action, is borrowed from the cinema. Similarly: - Juliet listening to Brother Lawrence’s narrative (giving her the potion that will pass her off as dead, and describing to her the future scene of her awakening) is a futuristic “flash”.
- Juliet refusing Paris in a pas de quatre with Lord and Lady Capulet (at one moment Juliet’s spirit escapes, rebel, she leaves the dance to shout out her pain, the other three protagonists freeze, then goes back to her place and the dance recommences) is only an interlude!
- Paris’ marriage retinue (young men and young women arriving with the musicians to awaken the future bride, discover Juliet’s lifeless body with the Capulet parents and the Nurse) leaves backwards as in a film that is being rewound.
- Romeo’s dream in Mantua: Benvolio takes the place of Juliet’s image (as in a “cross-dissolve”) to drag Romeo from his sleep.
The use of these technical processes employed in the theatre reiterates Nureyev’s interest in the cinema and his skill as a producer. It also shows the poetic capacities in ballet for expressing and portraying the subtleties of dreams. J.L.B.
Curiously, there are very few ballets to be found with Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love story as a theme before the twentieth century, despite it being a romantic subject! Not until after the musical creation of Prokoviev did a multiplicity of ballets about the lovers from Verona, and variations on this mythical story flourish.
In 1934, the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad commissioned Serguei Prokoviev to write a score on the subject. Shakespeare’s plays were frequently performed throughout the whole of the new Soviet Union, and Prokofiev who had left Russia in 1914 to follow Diaghilev’s “Russian Ballets” and continue his career as a composer and pianist virtuoso in Western Europe and the United States, saw Romeo and Juliet as an occasion to renew relations with his homeland. Prokoviev wrote an extremely detailed script, following the sequence of events in Shakespeare’s play scene by scene. He assigned a musical theme to each role (there is a leitmotiv for Juliet, for Romeo, for Tybalt, for Mercutio and also for the Nurse) which returns every time the character appears, and even describes the changes going on inside each of them; the theme is developed in a different mode depending on whether it is a question of intense joy or despair.
The managers of the Kirov ballet doubted that it was possible to portray such psychological nuances in ballet, and in 1935 they abandoned the project. Prokoviev turned to the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, but during an audition for the score which he himself played on the piano, his music was considered to be difficult and “undanceable”. So, it was that the Brno Ballet in Czechoslovakia finally created his Romeo and Juliet on the 30th December 1938, with a choreography by Ivo Vana Psota. Faced with the success of the first performances, the Kirov Ballet bade the composer return, and the ballet was finally performed in Leningrad on the 11th January 1940. Leonid Lavroski’s choreography, danced by Galina Oulanova and Konstantin Sergueev, matched the dramatics of the music, emphasizing the implacable hatred that brought the Capulets and the Montagues into conflict, and achieving a gripping contrast between the grandiose or aggressive ensembles and the intimacy of the pas de deux. It remained, for a long time, the reference version on which others, to a greater or lesser extent, were based.
The different versions of “Romeo and Juliet”
Versions by Rudolf Nureyev:
1977 - “Romeo and Juliet” London Festival Ballet in London First night was the 2nd June 1977 at the London Coliseum with Patricia Ruanne and Rudolf Nureyev, Nicholas Johnson (Mercutio), Jonas Kage (Benvolio), Frederic Jahn-Werner (Tybalt), Elisabeth Anderton (the Nurse). The show was also performed in January 1978 at the Palais des Sports in Paris with Patricia Ruanne, alternating with Eva Evdokimova, Elisabett Terabust, and Lynn Seymour in the role of Juliet.
1980 - “Romeo e Giulietta” Scala Opera Ballet in Milan First night was the 20th December 1980 at the Scala Opera House in Milan with Carla Fracci and Rudolf Nureyev, Paolo Podini (Mercutio), Angelo Moretto (Benvolio), Tiziano Mietto (Tybalt), Maddalena Campa (the Nurse). The show was performed on tour in July 1981 at the MET, Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, in New York. Nureyev invited Margot Fonteyn to play Lady Capulet.
1984 - “Roméo et Juliette” Paris Opera Ballet First night was the 19th October 1984 at the Palais Garnier. With Monique Loudièrees (Juliet) Patrick Dupond (Romeo), Cyril Atanassoff (Tybalt), Jean-Pierre Franchetti (Mercutio), Laurent Hilaire (Paris) and Yvette Chauviré (Lady Capulet).
This production was performed again at the Palais des Congrès in April 1985 (with Elisabeth Maurin and Manuel Legris, both 20 year old "sujets", making their debuts in title roles; the recently appointed principal dancer, Sylvie Guillem, danced her first Juliet). It was also performed on tour in Japan that same year. Following a revival in 1991 at the Palais Garnier (Nureyev directed the rehearsals), the ballet was then performed in July 1995 on the huge stage at the Bastille Opera House; consequently, Ezio Frigerio had to rethink and enrich his scenery. There were further revivals in October 1995, June/July 1998 and June/July 2001.
Learn more Franco Zeffirelli’s film, shot in 1968 using the natural scenery of Tuscany and the area around Venice, was said to have made a strong impression on Nureyev. The violence of the street fights and the “loutish” behaviour of the gilded youth that were the Capulets and the Montagues made a particular impact on him.