The Kirov Ballet presented Leonid Lavrovsky’s version of Romeo and Juliet on Friday 22nd July at the Royal Opera House. Lavrovsky’s version was the first successful choreographic interpretation of Prokofiev’s music. Created in 1940, years after the music had been composed, the ballet was a challenge both for artists and audiences alike. Galina Ulanova, who played the first Juliet, admitted being scared of the music and, in fact, most choreographers prior to Lavrovsky had pronounced it “impossible to dance”. Obviously, parallels with Tchaykowsky’s Swan Lake are easy to establish… That is why Lavrovsky’s interpretation was so groundbreaking. Nowadays, being used to a myriad of readings of the score, audiences may find this Soviet interpretation a bit old fashioned in the way it deals with dramatic interpretation or even musical phrasing, and yet, without this first choreographic attempt, there would have been no Cranko version and, therefore, no MacMillan’s either. All subsequent versions of the ballet have been so heavily influenced by the Russian version that it strikes as odd to see Ashton’s reading of the story and music. He had not seen the Bolshoi’s production and his choreography for the Royal Danish Ballet was very far away from the overdramatic and acrobatic style of the Soviet school. One look at MacMillan and Cranko’s version and it is not very difficult to see that the “overdramatic”, the opulence and the “acrobatics” are all there.
In spite of all this, it is still difficult to see Lavrovsky’s version with innocent eyes any more and credit has to be given to the Kirov Ballet for managing to bring their version of the ballet alive in such a coherent and touching way. Special mention must go to the principals and soloists of the company who portrayed the different characters in the ballet to perfection, none better than the two principals: Diana Vishneva and Andrian Fadeyev, who not only did have the looks and technical ability to dance the roles, but also managed to make their characters so alive it was impossible to take one’s eyes away from either of them.
The character roles belong to the Soviet Realist tradition in which the ballet was born. The villains are real baddies, there is no doubt about that. Tybald’s character is perhaps one of the best examples. Ilya Kuznetsov played it so over the top that he rightly deserved the boos at the end –though by the look on his face, this is something he did not expect! At times, the audience could be heard laughing at the excesses of the character, but once again, this character playing is as far away from MacMillan’s realism as anything can be. Therefore, his portrayal was just fantastic, for he managed to carry the character through to his death. It may be interesting to note how Ashton presented this character as the King of Cats, once again, a far cry from later interpretations.
Leonid Sarafanov played Mercutio with charm and incredible technique. His choreography is, once again, rooted in the Jester tradition and, though one misses the deeper emotional bonding that subsequent versions gave to Romeo’s friends, the dancing and acting were of the highest standards. The death scene did seem very long, but it is a fact of Prokofiev’s music that people in this ballet take a very long time to die…
Mention must be given to Vladimir Ponomarev’s Lord Capulet, like Kuznetsov’s Tybald, this was an interpretation to treasure. Some people in the interval were commenting in the ability of these dancers to transcend even the wigs that were assigned and it is truly magnificent to witness Lavrovsky’s dramatic renderings of these roles and the Kirov’s ability to maintain them despite the naturalistic approaches to drama that, by now, they have experienced.
There was plenty of Italian imagery that Lavrovsky used for his ballet, among which Lady Capulet’s mourning over Tybald’s body was most unusual. The scene was obviously inspired by the religious processions that take place in Mediterranean countries, especially at Easter and I found this use of iconographic imagery most significant.
Needless to say, the most important interpretations were those of Romeo and Juliet. Again, the ballet sets them apart from the start. Romeo is a lonesome hero; there is no previous fling with Rosaline, nothing that can detract from him the purity of character that obviously Lavrovsky envisioned. His choreography is equally pure and, in fact it is both Romeo and Juliet –and one might add Juliet’s friends- the only characters that express themselves through purely classical technique… if such thing does exist. Fadeyev’s interpretation was simply beautiful. He is one of those rare Kirov dancers who can achieve all technical difficulties and yet never outshine them by inflicting any showiness to them. He always serves the choreographer’s purposes and he therefore knows that this ballet belongs to Juliet and never objects to this fact. His variation in the balcony scene was breathtaking in its purity of lines and total abandon, something that he repeated in the later scene prior to the crypt, when he is seen brooding over his love till Benvolio announces Juliet’s death.
Diana Vishneva’s Juliet was of a different kind as well. Lavrovsky idealised his main characters to the point of making them totally unbelievable, and yet thanks to the sincerity of the interpretations, they were believable. Hers was not the curious, stubborn, rebellious Juliet that other versions have presented. As with Romeo, this reading of Juliet is uncommon in its simplicity. Juliet’s actions are simple to understand, there is no layered interpretation to the role. Vishneva danced it to the limit of its possibilities and succeeded in creating an ideal of heroine ready to fight and sacrifice herself for her love without any other thoughts.
The parts of the ballet that suffer most, after having seen other versions, are the market scenes. In the Lavrovsky version they seem to be lifeless and not very imaginative, still, in trying to convey some national colour, there were some interesting group numbers for the corps de ballet that, as usual with the Kirov, looked simply beautiful. It is a reminder of what a good corps de ballet is all about, a group of individuals that share a style and a way of interpreting the music.
Lavrovsky created a model of a ballet that has, since its creation, seen deep departures in the characters, but, in his version the premise seemed as solid as in Ashton’s. If Ashton’s only concern was the love between the two main characters, Lavrovsky’s was the heroic disposition of these two pure souls in the middle of a corrupted society. It was wonderful to see the Kirov keeping this premise alive in spite of the problems it must present in terms of coaching and ever changing fashions.