One fundamental way in which ballet differs from other theatre is that, for a given ballet, there might exist many different versions of the choreography. This would be akin to having four different version of Hamlet, all with the same fundamental plot but differing dialogue.
Amongst the most popular interpretations of Romeo & Juliet (all set to Prokofiev’s magnificent score) are those by Cranko, Nureyev, Ashton and MacMillan. It is MacMillan’s version that the Royal Ballet currently performs and it is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. Premiering in 1965 with Fonteyn and Nureyev, it was an immediate success and has been performed countless times since, across the world.
Sir Kenneth MacMillan is one of the great British choreographers. Forging a letter of permission from his father, he joined the Royal Ballet School during the second world war and later performed with the company. He spent 15 years as Principal Choreographer and was Director of the company for seven years. I make no attempt to hide that I am a huge fan of MacMillan’s work. He choreographed some of the greatest full-length ballets: Romeo & Juliet, Manon, Prince of the Pagodas and others. He was as versatile as he was talented, producing comic, serious and abstract works.
MacMillan’s genius is epitomised by his ability to make ballet seem completely natural. Take, for instance, the opening scene of Romeo & Juliet: the residents of Verona are attending the local market. As they wander, small groups break in sequences of steps as if it is a perfectly normal thing to do, before resuming their slow wander through the city with their wares. The following fight scene is a complex mixture of choreography and fencing, staying faithful to both. Later, MacMillan acknowledges the dance roots in sword fighting more overtly when Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio have a fake parry before entering the Capulets’ party. Conversely, the fateful confrontation between Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo is much more violent.
Concluding Act I is the famous balcony pas de deux, often performed on its own as a gala piece. In flowing costumes, the star-crossed lovers move around the Capulets’ garden as if ethereal, expressing their love and devotion. The lyrical choreography here is some of MacMillan’s most beautiful work. There is one particular moment where Romeo drops to his knees and lifts Juliet above his head. As he raises and lowers his upper body, Juliet arches her back in perfect synchronisation. Every time I see it my breath catches; it is too stunning for words. Another trademark of MacMillan’s work is his ability to advance the story with every single step. In more ‘classical’ ballets (such as Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty) the story is told in segments of mime, interspersed with segments of dance. In MacMillan’s work he does away with the mime, relying on the dancing alone.
Early in Act III, Lord and Lady Capulet try to force Juliet to marry Paris and they share a courtship dance in the middle of her bedroom. Unlike the earlier passionate balcony and bedroom pas de deux with Romeo, Juliet is unresponsive to Paris’ partnering. She falls limp as he tries to earn her affection. In the middle of this sequence Juliet suddenly snaps her leg into a high arabesque (one leg lifted behind her) recoiling away from Paris. This defiant gesture reveals Juliet’s true feelings, a crack in her submissive façade. I cannot think how this level of complexity in Juliet’s character could be expressed with more traditional mime.
I saw Cuthbertson and Bonelli (the cast for the upcoming cinema-relay) last weekend and they gave a stellar performance. The pair exuded a completely believable and consuming chemistry. When Cuthbertson’s Juliet first looked upon her Romeo it made you believe in love at first sight and the final scene had me wiping away a tear or two. Dancers of the highest calibre, they brought the most out of this fantastic choreography for a truly memorable performance, reminding me just how special ballet can be. Bravo!
You can read more about David’s ballet adventures here: Dave Tries Ballet.
Image credit: Chantel Beam.