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Birmingham Royal Ballet

Love in Death

David Mead reflects on why Kenneth MacMillan’s 'Romeo and Juliet' continues to be an audience favourite

by David Mead

It seems that creative artists have always been re-imagining “Romeo and Juliet.”  Shakespeare penned his play in 1593 yet it was almost certainly a re-working of Arthur Brooke’s three-thousand line poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet”, written in 1562 and reprinted in 1587.  Even this was probably inspired by a number of earlier versions by other authors.

It is hardly surprising that people are drawn to the tale.  After all, it’s a top-notch boy–meets-girl story, relevant to all times and easily understood by audiences, most of whom can identify on some level with the lovers’ passion and plight.  It remains a firm favourite even though most people know that it is going to end in death.

The first ballet production of “Romeo and Juliet” was Eusebio Luzzi’s for the Théâtre Samuele in Venice in 1785.  There were a few other versions around 1800, including Vincenzo Galeotti’s 1811 version for the Royal Danish Ballet. Then interest waned until Jean Cocteau’s 1924 production and the Bronislava Nijinska-George Balanchine version for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1926, set to music by Constant Lambert. 

The modern choreographic timeline really begins with Ivo Psota’s production in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1938, the first to Sergei Prokofiev’s score; and Leonid Lavrovsky’s 1940 production for the Kirov Ballet.  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.

Since then there have been well over one hundred new versions by numerous choreographers, almost exclusively classical ballet in nature, and almost all using Prokofiev’s dramatically expressive score. the best known being those by Frederick Ashton (1955), John Cranko (1958, extensively revised in 1962), Kenneth MacMillan (1965), and Rudolf Nureyev (1977). A few choreographers have turned to Tchaikovsky’s well-known fantasy overture and Antony Tudor’s 1943 Ballet Theatre version now lost, used music taken from various Frederick Delius compositions.

Lavrovsky’s production was first seen in the West in 1956 and it quickly became something of a benchmark and reference for later choreographers.  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 convulsive manner of Tybalt’s death and the omission of the final reconciliation. 

Although the story is easily adapted for ballet, its familiarity can pose problems, as can the dramatic, magnificent, sweeping Prokofiev score -- with its clear motifs or themes for each character and close following of Shakespeare’s text.  In many ways they impose something of a straightjacket on what choreographers can do.  We all know the story and we all know the ending.  Assuming they are remain true to the framework, each choreographer has to find a way of making their production stand out, of putting their individual stamp on the it, of making the journey to that tragic conclusion interesting and different.

Of all the ballet versions MacMillan’s is probably the most popular and most widely performed across the world.  In 2005, it celebrated forty years of enthralling audiences -- although the balcony scene is actually two years older having been made in 1963 for a Canadian television programme.  The production was an instant success but why has it endured and maintained its appeal?

The key to the popularity of MacMillan’s version lies in his approach to choreography and especially to characterisation—in how he updated the genre of narrative ballet.  MacMillan himself said that he was not interested in the purely decorative side of ballet and a strong sense of character certainly comes through in many of his works, “Romeo and Juliet” included.  In a discussion of “House of Birds” (1955) he said that he was very interested in people and that he “wanted to portray the dilemmas of people living, working and being with each other.”  He is often more concerned with what makes an individual behave in a given way and how they react to their situation, exploring their psychological motivations with sometimes raw, brutal and explicitly sexual exposés of real life.

MacMillan once confessed that he was “sick of fairy tales” and if a story calls for the choreographyto be ugly, just like life can sometimes be, then so be it.  His “Romeo and Juliet” is certainly a long way from being about falling in love with a bird, being danced to death by Wilis or waking up some girl who’s been asleep for a hundred years.  It is about real people and what they felt, not just about characters from a book.  It is a human story, about what goes on inside us.  It is real life, about ordinary characters, of this world and fallible.

Though we see MacMillan’s Juliet in old Verona, she is in so many ways a modern girl in love.  She is dominant and strong-willed whereas the women of the time were traditionally subservient as reflected in the “Dance of the Knights.”  As MacMillan said, it’s “Juliet’s decisive personality and rebellious temperament that provokes the affair.”  It’s she who is the catalyst for the unfolding tragedy.  These are no ethereal lovers; these real people, sexually alive and full of passion.

“Romeo and Juliet” is a naturalistic ballet full of physical abandon with none of the poise and stylised nature of most story ballets.  Even the dances of the crowd scenes are always framed by lots of natural ‘real-life’ movement.  American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Amanda McKerrow 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. You can hide behind it in various roles but Juliet is a girl before she's a dancer, really.  I mean, it wasn’t 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...”

Many writers have commented on how MacMillan’s own experiences seem to provide a key to his approach.  Biographer Edward Thorpe has noted that MacMillan – who had an unhappy childhood: his father was gassed in World War I and both parents died when he was young -- had “little in common with the rest of his family, but felt closest to his mother and sister Jean who suffered from acute deafness.”  Critic Clive Barnes, who called MacMillan’s the “definitive ‘Romeo and Juliet’ internationally” likened his work to that of painter Pablo Picasso saying that the key to it lay partly in his life. Barnes called his work the “choreography of a lonely man” which drew much on the “concept of the outsider.”  MacMillan —though reluctant to subscribe to this view -- did once comment that his family background and the trauma of World War II, gave him a “rather bleak” and certainly unromanticised, outlook on life and relationships.

Lynn Seymour, in her autobiography, went further saying that he had a “melancholy gaze” and “at times he 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.”  His ballets are often about people who, like himself, were at odds with the world, characters caught in oppressive situations to which there could be no happy ending.

And then there is the influence of his teachers.  At the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the late 1940’s he worked with both Ninette de Valois and Robert Helpmann within their respective demi-caractere and melodramatic styles.  Both created ballets inspired by literature and in many of them, the characterisation was crucial.

When making “Romeo and Juliet” MacMillan probed the depths of character identification and interpretation with Seymour and Christopher Gable, on whom the ballet was made.  He was lucky to have two dancers who understood what he wanted and 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.”  Such an approach affords room for each dancer to find their own way within the ballet, and allows for some variation as different performers respond to the roles, however, it also demands dancers who understand the approach, which is about much more than good technique and simply reproducing the steps.

He 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 violently illness.  It was also during one of these discussions that the idea came into being that after Paris departs, Juliet should simply sit on the end of the bed, her mind a mixed up whirl.  The music soars and swirls around her as if we are hearing the thoughts crashing around in her head.  Instead of thrashing around, she sits for what seems like forever trying to decide what to do.  It is only about forty seconds but seems an eternity in dance terms.  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 some discussion about whether they dare do it, one of them making the comment that “I can hear the audience fidgeting now.”

Strong characterisations do not stop with the two principals.  Mercutio, Benvolio and Tybalt were also created for powerful dancer-actors.  Macmillan ensured that his audience could identify with them by allowing the characters to develop expertly onstage.   We see Romeo and his friends full of fun and flirting with the women in the marketplace.  We see them mock duelling before going into the ball, something that foreshadows events to come.  And all the while, MacMillan manages to show a strong bond between them, so much so that the idea of one dying for another will become completely acceptable. 

It is also a ballet that allows much more scope for individual interpretation than is usual.  Sometimes the differences are quite obvious.  For example, in the 1966 film of Margot Fonteyn as Juliet she sits at the foot of the bed apparently sobbing into the bedclothes rather than sitting motionless on the end of it.  Sometimes the differences are subtler, more a case of the movement being dance-like rather than natural.  Watch Juliet’s reaction when Paris tries to take hold of her dress.  Is it that of a dancer or an actor -- that of a make-believe character or a real person? 

It has been said that MacMillan was most interested in working with very few dancers.  It is certainly true that he had a gift for finding the movement to express highly charged emotions between couples or small groups.  He once said “I try to start with the pas de deux because I always feel that the pas de deux has to be the high point of the ballet.  You know at what pitch that is and you work around it.”  This is not to say that his crowd scenes should be dismissed, they too are full of life and realism, but it is his powerful pas de deux and the big emotional situations that are at the centre of almost all his works.  In “Romeo and Juliet” it is the pas de deux that reveal how the relationship develops, from first eye contact at the ball, through intimacy and passion, to final demise.

MacMillan was not afraid to be realistic and choreographically daring in other ways.  The balcony pas de deux contains some of the most beautifully lyrical dancing in the repertoire but its lifts and holds always seem incredibly sexual.  Just think of the moment early on when Juliet takes Romeo’s hand and puts it on her heart so he can feel how it’s beating and in the bedroom pas de deux when she covers Romeo with frenzied kisses.

Then there are those long stillnesses.  Apart from the pas de deux one of the most memorable images is probably Juliet motionless on the end of her bed.  Then too, speaking of Romeo’s feelings on his first seeing 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, 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.

And just as in real life, MacMillan allowed his dancers to appear ugly, even grotesque at times.  In the crypt, Romeo -- having found the lifeless Juliet -- hauls her around in a way that MacMillan likened dragging a “big piece of dead meat.”  According to Judith Mackrell, 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.”  The final image of Juliet reaching for Romeo, the two lovers together yet separated even in death, is one of ballet’s great dramatic moments and a memorable final image to send the audience home with.

Katherine Sorley-Walker said that “Kenneth MacMillan probably did more than anybody to make ballet relevant to people.”  He refused to suppress the realities of life and gave us characters with whom we can identify and in whom we can see something of ourselves, our feelings and our desires.  In “Romeo and Juliet” his choreography and characterisation ensures we can identify with their passion and plight and that the fate of the two lovers exerts a hold from which there is no escape. 


An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2004 issue of “Entrechat”, the magazine of BRB Friends.

For information about BRB Friends, click here.

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