The ultimate ballet love story

David Mead dips into the history of Romeo and Juliet, and reflects on why Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet continues to be an audience favourite

Those teenage lovers will be back on the Birmingham Hippodrome stage later this month as Birmingham Royal Ballet kicks off its marking of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a week of performances of Kenneth MacMillan’s rich telling of the story of the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

It is surely the ultimate ballet boy meets girl story, full of emotion, easily understood and relevant to all times. It’s a favourite with many dancers too, with Juliet often being the role they want to perform. Aurora of Sleeping Beauty and Odette/Odile of Swan Lake may edge Juliet for technical prowess but she wins hands down when it comes to dramatic content.

There are well over a hundred ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet (and plenty of contemporary and even hip hop versions too) but the 1965 MacMillan version remains many people’s favourite. As a whole, it’s matched only by John Cranko’s 1962 production for Stuttgart Ballet, especially when it’s danced against Jurgen Rose’s beautifully evocative sets that just scream Verona, but even the Cranko doesn’t have the soaring passion of MacMillan’s balcony scene.

Jenna Roberts as Juliet and Iain Mackay as RomeoPhoto Roy Smiljanic
Jenna Roberts as Juliet and Iain Mackay as Romeo
Photo Roy Smiljanic

Creative artists have always been re-imagining Romeo and Juliet. Even Shakespeare’s 1595 play is almost certainly a re-working of Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, written in 1562, and itself a translation of an earlier Italian version.

The first known ballet of the story came in 1785: Eusebio Luzzi’s Giulietta e Romeo (music by Luigi Marescalchi), a mammoth five-act affair for the Théâtre Samuele in Venice. There were a few other productions around 1800, including Vincenzo Galeotti’s 1811 version for the Royal Danish Ballet (music Claus Schall), but the rest of the 1800s is a blank, the deep passions of the tale being ill at ease with the romanticism of the time.

“Never was a story of more woe than this of Prokofiev and his Romeo”
(Galina Ulanova).

Interest revived with Jean Cocteau’s 1924 production and the Nijinska-Balanchine version for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1926, which was set to a score by Constance Lambert and designs by Joan Miró and Max Ernst. While choreographers have edited the story out of necessity, most have stuck largely to the original scenario. But to prove that modern takes on it are nothing new, Nijinska’s ballet opens in a rehearsal studio into which Romeo enters dressed as a flier, and he and Juliet later leave on a plane.

Paul Andrews' sumptuous designs for Birmingham Royal ballet's Romeo and Juliet in all their rich detailPhoto Bill Cooper
Paul Andrews’ sumptuous designs for Birmingham Royal ballet’s Romeo and Juliet in all their rich detail
Photo Bill Cooper

It wasn’t long before Tchaikovsky’s somewhat condensed Romeo and Juliet started to be used for ballet, with notable productions by Birget Bartholin for the Ballet de la Jeaunesse, Paris in 1937, William Christensen for San Francisco Ballet in 1938 and Gyula Harangozó for the Hungarian National Ballet in 1939. Other music used by choreographers includes a collage of Delius by Anthony Tudor for Ballet Theatre in New York in 1943, a production now lost; and Berlioz by Igor Tchernichov for the Kirov Ballet (1968). Tchernichov managed to get the ballet banned when he tried to restage it following year with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova guesting as the leads.

For most though, Romeo and Juliet means Prokofiev, the first production to use his score being Ivo Psota’s in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1938, which was quickly followed by Leonid Lavrovsky’s 1940 ballet for the Kirov. Lavrovsky had worked closely with Prokofiev during the music’s composition, the pair being determined to keep to the letter and spirit of Shakespeare’s play.

“Judged by the highest standards, Romeo & Juliet remains a glorious failure.”
(Prokofiev biographers Lawrence & Elizabeth Hanson in the 1960s)

The first version of the ballet to Prokofiev made in the West came as early as 1944, by Birgit Cullberg in Stockholm. Other notable early versions included Sir Frederick Ashton’s for the Royal Danish Ballet 1955 and Cranko’s first attempt, in Venice for the ballet of the Teatro alla Scala in 1958 with a young Carla Fracci.

Jenna Roberts as Juliet and Tom Rogers as ParisPhoto Roy Smiljanic
Jenna Roberts as Juliet and Tom Rogers as Paris
Photo Roy Smiljanic

It was the Lavrovsky, though, that became the benchmark, especially after the Bolshoi Ballet first brought it to the Royal Opera House in 1956. The Cranko, MacMillan and Rudolf Nureyev (1977) versions, probably the three best known, all reference it extensively. It was Lavrovsky, for example, who first had Romeo ‘float’ Juliet in the air as if she were dreaming or flying. MacMillan also drew significantly on Cranko, notably in the lack of importance given to the family feud, the introduction of Rosaline into the ballet, the use of the Harlots in the market scene, the way Tybalt convulses as he dies, and the omission of the final reconciliation of the warring families.

When it came to The Royal Ballet having its own production of the ballet, MacMillian was actually third choice. De Valois first tried to get the Lavrovsky production but ran up against the reluctance of the Soviet authorities. Next, she tried persuading Ashton to mount his Royal Danish production, but he was concerned about his more understated version being compared with the Russian one. Ashton, then artistic director of The Royal Ballet suggested MacMillan. He was given just five months to complete it.

Aaron Robison as the Lead Mandolin DancerPhoto Roy Smiljanic
Aaron Robison as the Lead Mandolin Dancer
Photo Roy Smiljanic

The key to the popularity of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet lies in his approach to choreography and characterisation. Here, as in his other ballets, he wasn’t interested in the purely decorative side of storytelling and a strong sense of the individual comes through. Indeed, he once confessed that he was “sick of fairy tales” and if a story calls for the life to be revealed in all its ugly or unpleasant detail, then so be it. MacMillan was more concerned with what makes someone behave in a given way and how they react to their situation. It can be raw, brutal and sometimes explicitly sexual.

“It used to be that before the show I would be going through it again and again to ensure that everything is done right, but for Romeo it is more important to just be in the right mood, to just let the music, the sets and the plot lead your movements. That’s what is fascinating.”
(Viacheslav Samodurov, former principal dancer, The Royal Ballet)

His Romeo and Juliet isn’t as starkly revealing as some, but it’s certainly a long way from being about falling in love with a bird, being danced to death by Wilis or waking up some princess who’s been asleep for a hundred years. It’s about fallible people and what’s going on inside.

Although MacMillan’s ballet is set in old Verona, Juliet is in so many ways a modern girl in love; strong-willed and not afraid to make her views clear. As MacMillan observed, it’s Juliet’s personality and rebellious temperament that provokes the affair. It is she who is the catalyst for the unfolding tragedy.

Marion Tait as the Nurse, Mathias Dingman as Mercutio and Tyrone Singleton as BenvolioPhoto Roy Smiljanic
Marion Tait as the Nurse, Mathias Dingman as Mercutio and Tyrone Singleton as Benvolio
Photo Roy Smiljanic

Romeo and Juliet is a ballet full of physical abandon. Some moments are stylised but it’s largely very naturalistic. We see Juliet’s initial girlishness and the realisation that she is now a young woman; Romeo and his friends full of fun and flirting with the women in the marketplace; and the mock duelling before they go into the ball, something that foreshadows events to come. Former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Amanda McKerrow once said that MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet was where “I needed to learn to be human on stage, and to rip away that curtain that we all have…Juliet is a girl before she’s a dancer, really…Just doing the steps and trying to express the character through the steps, that doesn’t work in that ballet like it does in other ballets. It’s just raw emotion…”

“I never sat down and thought about what ballet should do in the theatre, but early in my career I knew that what I wanted to put on stage had to have more reality than much of what I was seeing in the 1940s and 1950s.”
(Kenneth MacMillan)

It seems likely that MacMillan’s own experiences provide a key to his approach. He had an unhappy childhood, his father was gassed in World War One and both parents died when he was young. He had little in common with the rest of his family. American critic Clive Barnes, who called MacMillan’s the “definitive Romeo and Juliet internationally” likened his work to that of Picasso saying that the key to it lay partly in his life. MacMillan himself was not too sure about this although never completely rejected the idea, and did once comment how his family background and his growing up through the trauma of World War Two gave him a “rather bleak” and certainly unromanticised, outlook on life and relationships.

Jenna Roberts as JulietPhoto Bill Cooper
Jenna Roberts as Juliet
Photo Bill Cooper

Lynn Seymour, in her autobiography, notes how MacMillan had a “melancholy gaze” and at times “was morbidly sensitive and withdrawn; he had a cool brain and a brooding nature…His most personal emotion – a feeling of savage alienation in a punishing world filled with contemptible desires – was expressed on stage.” It’s certainly true that his ballets are often about people who were at odds with the world or caught in oppressive situations to which there could be no happy ending.

“I let emotion out.”
(Kenneth MacMillan)

When making Romeo and Juliet MacMillan probed the depths of the two lovers with Seymour and Christopher Gable on whom the ballet was made. According to Seymour, MacMillan allowed them tremendous freedom. “He did not always ‘order’ a specific step; he would suggest a shape or a visual image. For example, ‘you’re two smouldering creatures, you’ve just made love, it’s Juliet’s first experience.” It’s an approach that allows dancers to find their own way through the ballet and allows for some variation as performers respond to roles the in different ways. It does though require actor-dancers who understand this approach; one about much more than good technique and simply reproducing the steps.

MacMillan talked to the pair a great deal about how they would react in a given situation. It was, for example, Seymour who said that her body’s natural first reaction on taking poison would be to try and be violently sick. Another discussion led to the scene Darcey Bussell once said she found the most difficult in the ballet: Juliet simply sitting on the end of the bed, her mind a mixed up whirl of feelings, the music soaring and swirling around her as if we are hearing the car crash of thoughts going round in her head. It’s crunch time and she’s desperately trying to figure out what to do. Seymour said, “If you’re in a predicament like that it’s very hard to think. She’s in a terrible tension…Something’s got to happen.” She also recalls that there was quite a discussion about whether they dare do it, one of them commenting, “I can hear the audience fidgeting now.”

Jenna Roberts as JulietPhoto Roy Smiljanic
Jenna Roberts as Juliet
Photo Roy Smiljanic

Stillness speaking volumes occurs elsewhere in the ballet. Talking of Romeo’s feelings on his first sighting of Juliet, Gable said, “Lynn and I decided that it was such a huge thing that one couldn’t choreograph it. So what we did was stand stock still for a long time. Dead still, just looking, not moving; nothing at all – for a long time. And it was broken by somebody else…but it had set the seeds for another meeting.” There are other similar moments including when Romeo leaves the ball, when the two lovers first see each other at the beginning of the balcony scene and a final, albeit shorter one, at the end of the bedroom pas de deux, the last time they see each other alive.

“Living people can dance, the dying cannot.”
(Prokofiev explaining why choreographers attempted a happy ending)

When making his ballets, MacMillan liked to start with the pas de deux. “I try to start with the pas de deux because I always feel that [they have] to be the high point of the ballet. You know at what pitch that is and you work around it,” he said. It is in them that he was best able to dig deeply into each character’s psyche and bring his them to life, often as much through powerful acting as classical steps. His crowd scenes shouldn’t be dismissed of course. They too are full of life and realism, but in Romeo and Juliet, as in his other full-length works, it’s his powerful pas de deux and the big emotional situations that sit at the heart.

“The innocence but then the passion that suddenly hits both of them just builds and builds and builds. It’s very, very beautiful, and there are so many still moments.”
(Darcey Bussell on the balcony pas de deux)

For most people, it is that balcony pas de deux that’s the most memorable scene of Romeo and Juliet. It was made first, but was originally intended as a special one-off duet for Canadian television, broadcast the same month he got the go-ahead for the full ballet. The pas de duex certainly contains some of the most beautifully lyrical dancing in the repertoire but its lifts and holds also always seem incredibly sexual. Look for that moment early on when Juliet takes Romeo’s hand and puts it on her heart so he can feel how hard it is beating and then later in the bedroom pas de deux when she covers Romeo with frenzied kisses.

Jenna Roberts as Juliet and Iain Mackay as RomeoPhoto Roy Smiljanic
Jenna Roberts as Juliet and Iain Mackay as Romeo
Photo Roy Smiljanic

But if the story needed it, MacMillan allowed things to go the other way too. In the crypt Romeo, having found the lifeless Juliet, hauls her around like a “big piece of dead meat,” as he put it. Gable recalled how he “used to drag Lynn around the stage and she’d just let her legs fall apart, all open and exposed, vulnerable and ugly.”

Is there a more spine-tingling end to a ballet, that the final scene when Juliet reaches out from her byre to her Romeo, the two lovers together, forever, at last? It’s one of ballet’s great dramatic moments and a memorable, heartbreaking image to send everyone home with.

Birmingham Royal Ballet dance Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet at the Birmingham Hippodrome from February 24-27, following an Ashton double bill of The Dream and A Month in the Country from February 17-20.

Romeo and Juliet can subsequently be seen on tour in Salford, Sunderland, Nottingham and Plymouth.

(This feature is an updated and substantially revised version of one that appeared previously in Entrechat, the magazine of BRB Friends in 2005)