It has been said that the only ballets that truly last are those with scores that can stand on their own “two feet”. Certainly Prokofiev’s music for Romeo and Juliet speaks the dialogue the dancers express on stage, and one of the strong themes of this insight day was the fit between the score and the ballet. The other, naturally, was the dancing. We saw Vanessa Palmer, soloist, and Christopher Saunders, ballet master, take very new boy, Jamie Bond through some of the dancing for the corps scenes. At the end of the day we had Donald MacLeary, principal repetiteur, lead Edward Watson, soloist, and Natasha Oughtred in the basics of the balcony scene. Neither Watson nor Oughtred had ever danced this before nor had MacLeary worked previously with either of them. The fact that they were willing to learn the steps in front of an audience was testament to their professionalism if not their courage and stamina. (The dancers had been rehearsing for another ballet immediately before their appearance in the Linbury.)
Dance critic, Edward Thorpe, together with Pauline Greene, Academic Adviser in Music and Music Co-ordinator for Birkbeck College, spoke about the history of this ballet, its music and specifically Kenneth MacMillian’s production. Prokofiev had been specially commissioned to write the score by the Kirov in 1936. But, once heard, and being so unlike the usual ballet music of the time, the Kirov decided not to use it. The music was then offered to the Bolshoi who also eventually said no. The universal feeling was that the work was too dissonant, too symphonic and simply not danceable. It did not help that Prokofiev was a most difficult man to work with. He was at least in good company. A similar reaction had greeted Tchaikovsky’s score to Swan Lake.
Greene described the music as being “open, fresh and neoclassical”, defining the later term as “familiar music with the wrong notes”. Thus, we might have a work that has a relationship to, say, Bach or Mozart, but the modern composer plays with it by introducing clashes in harmony, irregular phrasing or changes in the orchestration.
Prokofiev used the music to establish and develop the characters – Tybalt aggression, Mercutio’s jokes, the harlots’ behaviour (their dancing to a skipping melody using lots of rests in the music to convey a airy, light feeling) and Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other (the violins, associated with Juliet often play Romeo’s chords) – and to signal their thoughts and actions. Thus, when Paris and Juliet’s parents enter her bedroom (Act III scene 1) there is no fanfare. This is because Juliet is still thinking of Romeo’s departure and the music reflects this as it does again when she takes the poison at the end of the ballet. The music for the three fights is also distinctive, expressing the different temperatures of the encounters; merely a tiff in Act I , the one sided combat between Tybalt and Mercutio in Act II leading to the desperate, all out warfare between Romeo and Tybalt. (Mercutio’s music notably becomes “darker” as the life drains out of him as he lies mortally wounded.) Further, the Knights’ theme is used throughout to when “might is right” authority figures dominate the stage.
Eventually there was a performance towards the end of 1938 in Brno, Czechoslavakia choreographed by Psota and danced by him and Zora Semberova. Lavrovsky’s staging soon overtook that version for the Kirov in 1940 (with the dancers humming other music under their breath while they rehearsed because they still found the music so difficult), and which was later performed by the Bolshoi in 1946. That was the version, seen in London in the 1950s, that stunned audiences both for its splendid grandness and for the sheer number of the dancers involved.
Various Western versions began to emerge, the most notable being Cranko’s very dramatic interpretation for the Stuttgart Ballet and MacMillan’s for the Royal Ballet. All of the different versions had something to recommend them, but, in Thrope’s opinion, it was MacMillan’s ballet that was the best for sheer narrative skill, drive, textual clarity and imaginative choreography. Certainly Shakespeare’s strong, dramatic play was used by MacMillan to reflect his own philosophy that ballet was not merely a vehicle for the telling of simple fairytales or a presentation of abstractions, but “part of the expressive power of the theatre in general”.
MacMillan’s original association with Romeo and Juliet came about as a result of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commission in 1963 when he was asked to produce a grand pas de deux for their arts programme. Having seen both Lavrovsky’s and Cranko’s versions, he decided that he wanted to choreograph the Balcony scene at the end of Act 1 using Christopher Gable and Lynn Seymour as his Romeo and Juliet. (These two had found great success in dancing the leads in his ballet, The Invitation, the previous year.) It is probable that Ashton gave MacMillan this commission on the basis of this pas de deux. The rest, as they say, is history.
Things could have gone badly wrong. MacMillan had choreographed one Act ballets since 1955, but had never before attempted a full length ballet. Further, he had only five months to complete the work. In setting about the task he and his two principal dancers read and reread the Shakespeare play and listened incessantly to Prokofiev’s music.
Considering the situation, it is not surprising the MacMillan asked his long time collaborator, Georgiadis, to create the designs. Georgiadis decided to concentrate on built scenery that could be moved on and off the stage creating a sweeping staircase and gallery. (It seems that the RB no longer uses the balcony and instead has Juliet playing the last scene in Act I from the gallery. However, as there have been a number of protests about this, the rumour is that the balcony may yet make its return to the RB stage.) Georgiadis’ designs fitted in nicely with MacMillan’s own vision. He did not wish for the drawing of curtains when scenes finished and interval music playing while sets changed. Instead he wanted his scenes to dissolve in almost cinematic style. This combined well with Prokofiev’s music whose pace was fast with few transitions.
In creating the different roles, MacMillan was surprised to discover that there was very little music for Romeo to dance. (Not that amazing given that the ballerina’s status in Russia was supreme.) To remedy this he stole a dance originally meant for Juliet’s friends and gave it to Romeo so that he would have more to do. Having said that, it is Juliet who is the principal motivator of the drama. It is she who arranges their nuptials and defies her parents when they try to push her into Paris’ arms. Not bad for a girl who is only 14 years old, (the same age as Giselle).
While MacMillan’s main characters catch the audience’s attention since he purposely placed them downstage, the audience should now and them let their eyes wander past them to watch the various vignettes being improvised by the rest of the cast. Thorpe had a soft spot in particular for the two gossipy old ladies to be found agonising about the “youth of today” in the town market place (Act II, scene 1).
These improvisations were typical of MacMillan’s way of working in giving the dancers a certain amount of freedom in interpreting their roles. (Another way of interpreting this is that he mainly concentrated on the dancing for the principals and let the corps get on with it.) Further, the same character may be played in a variety of ways. For example, Tybalt can be either a bit of a bullyboy or a cold psychopath. To some extent the interpretation chosen depends on the build of the dancer who is playing the part at the time. MacMillan liked natural movements on stage. In his work people walk naturally, dead bodies are limp and fights get nasty. When MacMillan originally created the work he had John Barton from the Royal Shakespeare Company produce the three fight scenes to ensure that they were sufficiently realistic. David Drew has now restaged these.
As Palmer mentioned, unlike Giselle where they are picking grapes in pointe shoes, here the dancing in the ballroom is done in shoes for the women and boots for the men. Certainly the ballroom scene costumes, which weigh a ton, force the dancers to move accordingly - the men with their chests open (if not they would collapse after a while through the sheer weight of what they are carrying on their backs) and the women gliding along very docile beside them. The accompanying hats are so heavy that they can put a dancer’s neck out of joint, as happened to Saunders’ wife after a performance.
MacMillan’s moves on the story’s development like a composer, through the use of variations on themes. Thus the pas de deux between Romeo and Juliet in Act III, scene 1 (the bedroom as Romeo departs) echoes their great pas de deux at the end of Act I. But in Act III the duet is more intense and anguished as shown by the more extreme angles of the arabesques and the higher lifts. (The pas de deux between Paris and Juliet in Act I is also echoed in this scene.) Possibly one of the most dramatic moments in this ballet is the moment that Juliet, having been threatened with disownment by her parents for not wanting to marry Paris, sits on her bed while the music crescendos about her. Most choreographers would have been tempted to have her dance wildly to such music, but the device of stillness works wonderfully presenting to us the intensity of the drama more directly through Juliet’s face. The scene ends with her exiting with her cloak flying behind her.
In taking Jamie Bond through the movements, Saunders and Palmer, gave some interesting insights into the induction of a new company member. Virtually all of the company are Romeo and Juliet veterans, and new member have to fit in as fast and as well as they can. This can be hard considering how intimate the dancers become after working with each other closely for long hours for weeks on end. Further, after years of being trained to place the feet in a certain way and wait to be instructed on how to place himself, here Bond found himself, just two weeks after becoming a member of the RB, being told to walk in an ordinary fashion with his heel first, to react in character and never to be afraid of simply do nothing on stage. According to Palmer, MacMillan would have a habit of sitting with dark glasses on at rehearsals watching the members of the corps engage in their little dramas in order to identify those he thought could act.
The three concentrated on the ballroom, town square and fight scenes. While the first is all grand movement, the town square dancing is dominated by grounded dancing done with a natural stance rather than a tightly held upper body. Palmer told the story that MacMillan, when staying in Rome, saw everyone out on the street in the evening promenading in a perfect circle and incorporated that movement into his production. Similarly, Monica Mason’s reading of the harlots, (she played the central harlot), may have come from her seeing beautiful girls “of the night” simply standing in the Roman streets. MacMillan was also influenced by popular dances of the day. If you look hard enough, you can see the harlots doing a version of the twist.
Considering how much acting is involved, one question asked was whether the company had acting lessons. There is no time for this, but the dancers do set a high premium on characterisation. Palmer, chosen to play two different harlots, worked to make their mannerisms different. In speaking of the harlots, Palmer said, “there are a lot of new people, and it makes our lives as harlots exhausting. You have to work the stage and create a lot of energy. You need someone to react to it or it becomes West Side Story. You not just disgusting slappers.” Bond, faced with her dancing around him, at least reacted with a smile. It is expected that he will do more on stage when the time comes.
The swordfights are fought with very dangerous, but blunt ended swords. The original swords were made out of metal that often snapped, which did not please those orchestra players who would get literally stabbed in the back when they broke on stage. There are a number of different sword sequences, and it is important that the boys can do all the variations since, at short notice, they may have to step in and duel with someone who they have not fought with in rehearsal. And the fighting can get intense as the dancers lose themselves in the drama.
At the end of the afternoon Watson and Oughtred were put through a practical session reconstructing the balcony pas de deux under MacLeary’s guidance. MacLeary noted that this was a very tough sequence for Romeo particularly as he has danced almost continuously through the first act. As Saunders had explained previously, MacMillan liked to give names to sequences of steps. Thus we got introduced to the “hoover”, a limping step used in the ballroom scene, and to the “wheelbarrow” step found in the balcony scene, where Romeo holds one of Juliet’s legs while her other leg glides along the floor.
When asked what they might be doing in this year’s production, Watson mentioned that, in addition to Benvolio, which he had danced before, he was also playing Paris and understudying Romeo. Oughtred mentioned that she was down to play a peasant, but her wish was to someday dance Juliet. On the basis of the evidence of her style, fearlessness and presence as displayed on the Day, she would certainly make a Juliet worth seeing.