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Star-crossed steps
Looking back at the dance history of Romeo and Juliet

Looking and listening

On videotape and/or DVD

Bolshoi Ballet: Leonid Lavrovsky (choreographer), Yuri Zhdanov (Romeo), Galina Ulanova (Juliet), Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the Bolshoi State Orchestra (Kultur, 1954, 95 minutes).

Royal Ballet: Kenneth MacMillan (choreographer), Rudolf Nureyev (Romeo), Margot Fonteyn (Juliet), John Lanchbery and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (Kultur, 1966, 124 minutes).

Bolshoi Ballet: Leonid Lavrovsky (choreographer), Mikhail Lavrovsky (Romeo), Natalia Bessmertnova (Juliet), Algis Zuraitis and the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theater (Kultur, 1975, 108 minutes).

Ballet Company of La Scala: Rudolf Nureyev (choreographer), Rudolf Nureyev (Romeo), Carla Fracci (Juliet), Michel Sasson and the Orchestra of La Scala (Kultur, 1982, 129 minutes).

Royal Ballet: Kenneth MacMillan (choreographer), Wayne Eagling (Romeo), Alexandra Ferri (Juliet), Ashley Lawrence and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (Thorn EMI, 1984, 128 minutes).

Opéra National de Lyon: Angelin Preljocaj (choreographer), Nicolas Dufloux (Romeo), Pascale Doye (Juliet), Kent Nagano and the Orchestre de líOpéra de Lyon (Image Entertainment, 1992, 85 minutes).

And on CD

André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra (EMI, 1973, 148:42).

Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon, 1986, 144:22).

Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra (Philips, 1990, 144:16).


"Prokofievís Romeo is the mass-audience version of Shakespeare, without the poetry (which is usually so ill-spoken that it canít be understood anyway), and with the emphasis on spectacle, violence, and pathos." Writing about a 1979 San Francisco Ballet production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Arlene Croce put her finger on why so many choreographers have been drawn to the Bardís "star-crossed lovers." The play became a dance as early as 1785, when the five-act Giulietta e Romeo, choreographed by Eusebio Luzzi to a score by Luigi Marescalchi, was presented at the Théâtre Samuele in Venice. La Scala in Milan staged its own version two years later, and in 1809 St. Petersburg saw Ivan Valberkhís Romeo e Julia. In 1811, Antoine Bournonville, father of August, danced Romeo in a production in Copenhagen. For his 1926 Ballets Russes production in Monte Carlo, Serge Diaghilev commissioned a score from English composer Constant Lambert and designs from Joan Miró and Max Ernst; the choreography was by Bronislava Nijinska with a contribution from the young George Balanchine.

There have since been attempts to set Tchaikovskyís Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture (the drawback is that itís only 20 minutes long) and Berliozís Roméo et Juliette dramatic symphony (most notably by Maurice Béjart in 1966). Anthony Tudor used various pieces by Frederick Delius for the one-act version that was presented at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1943. But the full-length (nearly two and a half hours) score that Sergei Prokofiev completed in 1935 has become the standard, having been set by Leonid Lavrovsky (1940), Frederick Ashton (1955), John Cranko (1958), Kenneth MacMillan (1965), Rudi van Dantzig (1967), Rudolf Nureyev (1977), Yuri Grigorovich (1979), Choo San Goh (1984), Ben Stevenson (1987), Angelin Preljocaj (1989), Michael Corder (1992), Daniel Pelzig (1997), and Nacho Duato (1998), among many others. The settings by Choo San Goh and Daniel Pelzig were Boston Ballet commissions, but for next monthís Romeo and Juliet, which opens May 8 at the Wang Theatre, the company will be using Rudi van Dantzigís 1967 version.

Thereís no mystery as to why choreographers gravitate toward Prokofievís music: itís the only full-length Romeo ballet score in the repertoire. Or perhaps their attraction is just the fascination of whatís difficult. Croce goes on to point out that "Prokofievís scenario was constructed from Shakespeare without, as far as we know, the collaboration of a choreographer. Its awkwardness is irremediable; there is no course open to the choreographer but to follow it as closely as the composer did. Efforts to interject more dancing are doomed. The ballet is inescapably ambulatory, and its pantomime is naturalistic. Prokofiev did not anticipate José Limón. Choreography that goes with Prokofiev may be tedious as well as awkward, but choreography that goes against Prokofiev in order to press its own ideas is unintelligible."

Composed in 52 short, titled scenes, Prokofievís ballet is indeed literal, and if we believe the story that George Balanchine told about asking him for a share of the Prodigal Son royalties back in 1929, we can understand why he didnít deign to collaborate. As Balanchine biographer Bernard Taper relates it, Prokofiev replied, "Why should you get money? Who are you? Youíre nothing but a lousy ballet master. Get out!" Certainly he wasnít pleased with Balanchineís choreography; heíd expected a more naturalistic staging.

But this project, like the lovers, was star-crossed; Galina Ulanova, who danced Juliet at the balletís St. Petersburg premiere in 1940, declared, "Never was a story of more woe than this of Prokofiev and his Romeo." When Prokofiev began writing, in 1934, the Kirov Theatre was interested, but it backed out and he signed a contract with the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. That too fell through, for reasons ranging from the balletís lack of social realism to the beginning of the Stalinist terror. Prokofievís Romeo and Juliet debuted in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in December 1938; it wasnít presented in Russia till 1940, when Leonid Lavrovsky choreographed it for the Kirov. Lavrovskyís version, still with Ulanova, was presented in London in 1956, but the Romeo and Juliet thatís best known to Western audiences is the one that Kenneth MacMillan did for the Royal Ballet in 1965. He created it for Christopher Gable and Lynn Seymour; when it appeared the following year as a full-length feature movie, however, it starred Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, and they made the ballet famous.

On video Romeo and Juliet is represented by two examples of the Lavrovsky staging, two by MacMillan, two by Nureyev, and the avant-garde Lyon interpretation by Angelin Preljocaj ó of Tudor, Ashton, and Cranko, thereís no record. Made in 1954, the first film of the Bolshoiís Lavrovsky staging looks like a Hollywood film from the í30s, its Romeo (Yuri Zhdanov) first seen in profile, like a young Olivier, its Juliet (Ulanova, then 44) darting around her nurse like a not-so-young Olivia de Havilland. Thereís even a Eisensteinian close-up of a man making a fig with his fingers (for Shakespeareís "Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"). Outdoor Verona looks patently artificial, the group fight scenes seem speeded up, and the acting is melodramatic. During the preparations for the Capulet party, a butler pockets a piece of fruit; during the Dance of the Knights, the camera cuts from the choreography to underline the decadent consumption. The wedding scene is an extended and imaginative one, with Romeo strewing white flowers in front of Juliet as she enters and the two of them posed side by side like Heroes of the Soviet People before Friar Laurence. In the final scene the friar points an accusing finger and the fathers embrace.

The other Bolshoi video is dated 1975 but claims to show a performance from 1976, and it lists no choreographer, only Yuri Gigorovich as "artistic director." The substance is Lavrovsky, though instead of playing hide-and-seek with her nurse Juliet is seen at what looks like a Hollywood party exchanging bored small talk with a man who turns out to be Paris. None of the minor roles is well defined in the Bolshoi productions (Mercutio, in black with a red cap, is at least easy to spot), and the choreography is sweet but undistinctive. Mikhail Lavrovsky recalls Mikhail Baryshnikov in his demeanor, if not his virtuosity; Natalia Bessmertnova has a fetching jeté but at 35 is no youngster. The most eye-catching thing about this production is the opening set, a checkerboard piazza with a sculpted rendition of Botticelliís Flora in the center and a backdrop that crosses Botticelli with Mantegna while inviting comment on the Renaissance concepts of space and perspective.

The set for the 1966 Royal Ballet film is grimmer and grittier, London by way of Verona, and it outlines space rather than defining it. The market scenes seem endless, their harlots in outfits no woman of any job description would be caught dead in, the elevated-camera shots turning the dancing into something out of a í50s musical. In retrospect, Nureyev looks more facile than virtuosic, those dizzying pirouettes symptomatic of a sensibility that begins and ends in itself; and Fonteyn, the Queen Elizabeth II of ballerinas, dances as much like a teenager as any 45-year-old can. Itís Alexandra Ferri, in the 1984 Royal Ballet production, who fills MacMillanís choreography: skittery, coltish (the little leap with which she finishes off her balcony descent), every wriggly movement and shyly phrased extension revealing character, she makes other Juliets look like zombies. Her callow, frat-boy Romeo, Wayne Eagling, is bigger than Nureyev; he tosses her like a feather. Their Verona includes a trio of red-haired Hogarth harlots and a plaster of Paris (Julian Hosking) with the heart of a rapist; the dim lighting puts the set in an iron-red state of repression, making it a fit backdrop for the "No sex, please, weíre Capulets" Dance of the Knights.

Nureyevís La Scala production was filmed in 1982, with yet another aging Juliet, 46-year-old Carla Fracci, who debuted the role for John Cranko back in 1958. The outlines are MacMillanís, but the choreography is more Romeo-centered, and Nureyev is past his prime. Margot Fonteyn over-emotes as Lady Capulet. I havenít seen the 1984 Paris performance; I canít imagine it would be any better. Angelin Preljocajís Lyon staging is Eurotrash and proud of it, a modern-dance, modern-dress version set under an overpass, a West Side Story without innocence or even heart where Tybalt and his fascist thugs beat an unarmed Mercutio to death while Romeo and Juliet go through calisthenics that donít conjure sex, never mind love. Julietís nurse is played by two women in vertically halved costumes, one black and white, the other white and black.

By far the most galvanizing performance in this lot is Ferriís; itís too bad the Thorn EMI opera and dance videos appear to have been withdrawn. One might also wish to see once more Boston Balletís two prior productions. "The place for Choo San Gohís choreography, surely, is in the movies," Arlene Croce wrote, but his innovations for Romeo and Juliet included the gray-unitarded character Fate and an expanded concept of Tybalt. I was not a fan of the former on principle: despite that "star-crossed" reference in the playís prologue, Shakespeareís lovers self-destruct in a blaze of complex light-and-dark metaphors. But it was an original idea in a ballet that has lived on literalism. Gohís Tybalt glowers at Paris as well as at Romeo; he wants Juliet for himself. It doesnít stop there, either: stolen moments in the wings with Lady Capulet explain the vehemence of her reaction to his death. Gohís Dance of the Knights, in front of an Uccello-inspired fresco, had the Capulet ladies doing a deep backbend/pelvic thrust while their husbands genuflected decorously, a tableau of social and sexual dislocation.

Pelzigís staging retained Alain Vaësís color-coded costuming (powder-pastel and cream for the Montagues, crimson and black for the Capulets, pink for Juliet) and Botticelli-meets-Aldo-Rossi sets but replaced Gohís junior-prom steps with a chilling presentiment of Fascist Italy; itís a presentation that will be hard to match. In the pit, on the other hand, Jonathan McPhee and the Boston Ballet Orchestra have overmatched the disappointing recorded competition (Previn sensitive but dull, Ozawa unballetic and erratic, Gergiev sometimes lightweight and not always well recorded) in Prokofievís bass-and-bassoon-bitten score, and thereís no reason to think they wonít do so again.

Issue Date: April 25 - May 1, 2003
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