Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is a special ballet, so special that both the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet are kicking off their 2021/22 seasons with the much loved classic. Jann Parry takes a look at how one of the most admired narrative ballets of the 20th century came to be and details of the many dancing debuts we can look forward to…
Royal Ballet Romeo and Juliet
Royal Opera House: 5-24 October 2021, 10 January-25 February 2022
Birmingham Royal Ballet Romeo and Juliet
Birmingham Hippodrome: 6-9 October, Plymouth Theatre Royal 27-30 October 2021
In the 80 or so years since Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet score was first performed as a ballet, there have been countless reworkings of Shakespeare’s story in dance form. Productions have been set in Renaissance Verona, Fascist Italy and Stalinist USSR, as well as modern day cities rife with gang violence – Birmingham, in Rosie Kay’s new production, New York in West Side Story.
Radical retellings tend to avoid Prokofiev’s score (or refer to it only briefly) because it dictates the action. It is pretty well impossible to override the music for the Dance of the Knights in the Capulet ballroom, the graphic deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio, or Juliet’s dread at taking the potion. Because the music is so familiar – over-familiar thanks to TV adverts – it’s hard to appreciate the obstacles that held up its Soviet premiere as a full-length ballet score. In fact, the world premiere of Prokofiev’s original score wasn’t until 2008, after a music scholar unearthed it and Mark Morris choreographed it for his own company, taking his Romeo and Juliet on tour in the U.S before bringing it to London.
Prokofiev had composed the score in 1935, with the aid of two scenarists. They intended the ballet for the Kirov, now the Mariinsky Ballet, to have a happy ending. Romeo wants to kill himself, but Friar Laurence prevents him: Juliet wakes up and they dance together amid general rejoicing in Arcadia. The Soviet cultural authorities intervened ruthlessly and the only company that dared present a one-act ballet to Prokofiev’s music in 1938 was based in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Ivo Vana-Psota was the choreographer. Two years later, the Kirov decided to undertake a full-length production, choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky with many alterations to the score, preserving Shakespeare’s tragic ending.
The ballet was such a success that Lavrovsky remounted it for the Bolshoi in 1946, once again with Galina Ulanova as Juliet. She was Juliet in the famous 1955 film of the Bolshoi production, with Yuri Zhdanov as Romeo, and she was still dancing the role in her forties when the Bolshoi first came to London in 1956. Among the Covent Garden audience were three young choreographers who would go on to create their own accounts of Romeo and Juliet: John Cranko, Alfred Rodrigues and Kenneth MacMillan. Frederick Ashton had already choreographed his own version for the Royal Danish Ballet the year before he saw the Bolshoi production.
By the time the fourth centenary of Shakespeare’s birth was to be celebrated in Britain in 1964, Ninette de Valois had decided that the Royal Ballet (RB) must perform Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s best known romantic tragedy. She had asked Ashton to mount his Danish production for her company in exchange for letting the Royal Danish Ballet do his La Fille mal gardée. He demurred, claiming that his modest version wouldn’t stand comparison with the grandiose Bolshoi production. Negotiations started with the Soviet Minister of Culture for Lavrovsky to stage his Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Ballet in 1964, by which time Ashton had succeeded De Valois as artistic director.Once again, Soviet cultural politics intervened. Lavrovsky had fallen out of favour, supplanted as director of the Bolshoi Ballet by Yuri Grigorovich. In any case, the Soviet authorities had no intention of enabling the Royal Ballet to duplicate one of the Bolshoi’s renowned money-spinning productions – especially not on tour to the United States. Once the Royal Opera House Board realised that Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was unlikely to happen, they and Ashton determined that a new, in-house production was the best option. Kenneth MacMillan, by then 34, was to be given his big chance.
He had seen Cranko’s version, danced by Marcia Haydée and by Lynn Seymour as a guest with the Stuttgart Ballet in 1964. MacMillan reckoned he could do even better. He had already created a balcony pas de deux for Seymour and Christopher Gable to dance in a Canadian TV gala, so when the commission came for his first three-act narrative ballet in five months’ time, he and they collaborated in a fever of excitement. They read and reread Shakespeare’s play and watched the Bolshoi’s 1955 film. MacMillan was inspired by Franco Zeffirelli’s radical production of Romeo and Juliet for the Old Vic in 1960, with the young, unknown Judi Dench as Juliet and John Stride as Romeo. The lovers were hot-blooded, sexually passionate youngsters living in a violent patriarchal society. MacMillan wanted his ballet to be similarly realistic, breaking away from the stylised approaches of Cranko’s and Lavrovsky’s versions.
It hadn’t occurred to MacMillan or his chosen dancers that he would have no control over the casting of his Juliet and Romeo. Seymour and Gable were replaced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev as the first cast for the London premiere in February 1965, as well as the New York one that followed on tour. Sol Hurok, the American impresario, insisted that the new, untried ballet needed the publicity of the famous partnership to entice U.S. audiences. The Royal Opera House acceded to his demand, claiming that the ballet was now a company production, subject to casting by seniority (even though Fonteyn and Nureyev were guest artists). Seymour and Gable were fourth on the official cast list, though they made their debuts as the second cast, garnering ecstatic reviews. Critics and audiences realised that their interpretations of the roles were what MacMillan had intended.
MacMillan left the Royal Ballet the following year to become artistic director of the Deutsche Oper Ballet in West Berlin, taking Lynn Seymour with him as principal ballerina. Christopher Gable gave up dancing to become an actor before returning to the ballet world later in his career. MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet went on (and on) to become a 20th century classic, overshadowing Lavrovsky’s and Cranko’s versions. It now competes with a plethora of updated accounts of Shakespeare’s play in modern settings. Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) will be performing its production of MacMillan’s ballet this month alongside a double bill of Edward Clug’s Radio and Juliet (to the music of Radiohead) and Rosie Kay’s Romeo + Juliet for her own company (to music by Berlioz and Annie Mahtani).
When the time came for the recently established Birmingham company to mount its own production of MacMillan’s ballet in 1992, new designs were commissioned by the choreographer from Paul Andrews, a recent graduate from Wimbledon College of Art. Nicholas Georgiadis’s monumental sets for the Royal Ballet’s production were difficult to tour and had been revised over the years since 1965. BRB needed its own distinctive look, evoking the Early Renaissance instead of the later era of Georgiadis’s setting and costumes. Andrews’s designs met with MacMillan’s approval (with a few adaptations) and he adjusted his choreography to accommodate the new décor. The commission launched Andrews on a successful career in theatre design until his life was cut short in 1997 by an asthma attack.
The 1992 premiere of BRB’s production at the Birmingham Hippodrome was to be danced by two guests from the Bolshoi, Nina Ananiashvili and Alexei Fadeyechev. When Fadeyechev had to cancel at the last minute because of injury, he was replaced as Romeo by Kevin O’Hare, then a young principal dancer with BRB. For the London premiere in 1993, MacMillan suggested Marion Tait, with Robert Hill, a guest from American Ballet Theatre, as Romeo. Tait thus became another distinguished ballerina whose Juliet was entirely convincing, interpreted by a dancer in her forties. Alessandra Ferri, at 39, had returned as a guest in the Royal Ballet’s 2002 revival of MacMillan’s ballet in the role she had first danced at 19. (Ferri will be dancing a new duet with Carlos Acosta when BRB brings its Curated by Carlos programme to Sadler’s Wells in November.)
With the return of both Royal Ballet companies to autumn/winter seasons of live performances, debuts will be made by new generations of dancers in MacMillan’s 56-year-old Romeo and Juliet. New Royal Ballet Juliets will be Fumi Kaneko and Mayara Magri; new Romeos include Alexander Campbell, Reece Clarke and Calvin Richardson; William Bracewell makes his RB debut, although he has already danced Romeo in BRB’s production and on film with Francesca Hayward in the BalletBoyz Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words. BRB debuts in Birmingham and Plymouth include Beatrice Parma, Miki Mizutani and Yu Kurihara as Juliet, and Lachlan Monaghan as Romeo.
All these debuts will bring fresh interpretations to a classic of the British repertoire. Audience members, old and new, will discover (and discuss) their favourite pairings of the tragic lovers. MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet may well be over 50 years old, but its magic never dims, no matter where and when it’s performed.