MacMillan’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’: The jewel in the Royal Ballet’s crown

ART DE VIVRE (The Philippine Star) - December 5, 2015 - 9:00am

The premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet at the Royal Opera House in 1965 is probably best remembered for taking 43 curtain calls during applause that lasted more than 40 minutes as Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn together with the rest of the cast took their bow.

This was quite a surprise considering MacMillan’s choreography was not what the audience at the time was used to. Take the final act, for example: Romeo finds Juliet lifeless at her family crypt but cannot accept what he sees so takes her in his arms, desperately shakes her limp body and drags her around “like a piece of dead meat,” as MacMillan described it. Not a very pretty sight, and not very balletic compared to all the traditional classical choreography in the repertory. But MacMillan was not your usual choreographer. He had grown tired of the conventional fairy tale ballets and preferred works with real situations and people with raw passions.

And nothing could be as immediate and true to life as Romeo & Juliet, probably the world’s greatest love story, a play by William Shakespeare that has its roots in a tradition of tragic romances that go all the way back to antiquity. It’s the stuff of teleseryes with the young, innocent lovers coming from two feuding families, Romeo’s Montagues and Juliet’s Capulets. The reason for the fight is never known but what captures the imagination is the will of the two to make their love triumph over all obstacles. From its first publication in 1597, the play has captivated readers for generations. The First Folio at the Bodleian in Oxford was actually chained to the shelves of the library because of its popularity. There have been countless translations and adaptations through the years from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 cult film to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie of warring mafia empires starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes.

Today, it is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently adapted plays together with Hamlet. Even here in the Philippines, in just the last two months, there were two productions: #R</3J, a contemporary multimedia adaptation by Dexter Santos for Dulaang UP, and Romeo & Juliet, a ballet by Paul Vasterling for Ballet Manila.

At the Royal Opera House, MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet remains one of the most popular ballets in its repertory, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with close to 500 performances completed. We were fortunate to catch the anniversary production starring the Royal Ballet’s principal dancers Federico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson.

With a score composed by Sergey Prokofiev in 1935, Romeo & Juliet was first brought to the Royal Opera House in 1956 by the Bolshoi Ballet. The British audience was so taken with the Leonid Lavrovsky production that Ninette de Valois, founder-director of the Royal Ballet, decided that her company should have it in its repertory. It was of particular import because Shakespeare was, after all, the country’s greatest playwright and his 400th birth anniversary was going to be celebrated in 1964. She tried to negotiate with the Soviet authorities but nothing fruitful happened perhaps because they knew the ballet was a treasure to be kept for themselves so she asked Frederick Ashton instead to stage his 1955 version for the Royal Danish Ballet. Ashton declined, however, for fear that his ballet, which was created on a modest scale for the intimate Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, would ultimately be overshadowed by the grand, Bolshoi version.

Enter MacMillan, a promising choreographer who started as a dancer with De Valois in her former company, Sadler’s Wells Ballet. He was a good dancer but was plagued with stage fright so he switched to choreography. In 1963, De Valois retired and handed the reins to Ashton who was also a mentor of MacMillan and felt that the new choreographer was the perfect choice to do Romeo & Juliet.

MacMillan had seen Lavrovsky’s Bolshoi version and his friend John Cranko’s choreography for the Stuttgart Ballet and already had many ideas whirling in his mind on how to do his own version setting Prokofiev’s music to dance. Visiting Stuttgart in 1964, he saw his muse, Lynn Seymour, learning the role for a guest performance as Juliet. Scheduled to appear with partner Christopher Gable on Canadian television, she needed a lyrical duet which she asked MacMillan to create. The choreographer readily obliged, creating a pas de deux that became the centerpiece for his Romeo & Juliet balcony scene.

When the go signal was given for the three-act ballet, MacMillan turned to his frequent collaborator, Nicholas Georgiadis, to design the production. What the busy, in-demand designer came up with was quite spectacular — monumental sets that the British ballet stage had never seen before. One of the duo’s inspirations was Franco Zeffirelli’s production of the play for the Old Vic in 1960, with a fortress-like castle for the Capulets and hot-blooded youth played by Judi Dench and John Stride inhabiting a violence-ridden milieu. MacMillan wanted the same naturalistic, verismo for their ballet, in direct contrast to the previous versions that balletomanes were used to. He felt, for one, that the lovers should die painful, ugly deaths and that there will be no reconciliation of the feuding clans not like in the happier ending of the play.

“Some of the emotions are terrible, actually many of the things that happen in the ballet are terrible. But the fact that you can go through those emotions is very rewarding,” according to Franco Bonelli. Not interested in the purely decorative side of ballet, Macmillan wanted to emphasize characterization which drives the drama in most of his work.



“Everything Juliet does, says, how she looks, how she holds her head, how she walks, how she runs, has to be in the style of Juliet, so you have to know her very well so you’re free to be spontaneous,” says Lauren Cuthbertson who plays Juliet opposite Bonelli. “I’m interested in people, I want to portray their dilemmas living, working and being with each other,” the choreographer once said. So even if the setting is in Renaissance Verona, Juliet is still very much the independent, head-strong woman of today –- one of the first feminists on the ballet stage. It is her rebellious nature and actions that actually make her affair with Romeo a reality and propels it to its tragic conclusion.

How their passion develops and reaches its climax is ingeniously expressed in the choreography of MacMillan, which is very physical and psychological at the same time, without the stylized formality of the traditional narrative ballet. “There is no mime used in this ballet and every movement has a meaning,” Bonelli shares. MacMillan never liked dancers doing the traditional ballet position of foot pointing out or doing “the pose” at the end of a sequence to give time for the audience to applaud. Thus even crowd scenes looked natural with real-life movements. “If it’s working dramatically you almost need to forget they’re dancing. In fact Kenneth wanted that you forget they were dancing because the story is so important,” shares his widow, Deborah Macmillan.

In creating the ballet, MacMillan worked intensely with Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable to thresh out the characters but gave them a lot of freedom. “He did not always order a specific ‘step’. He would suggest a shape or a visual image. For example, ‘you’re two smoldering creatures, you’ve just made love, it’s Juliet’s first experience,” recounted Lynn Seymour in an interview.

Another salient feature of this ballet is the use of long moments of stillness to emphasize high emotional points like when Romeo first sees Juliet in the party scene and just freezes as the crowd moves around him. In another scene, Paris, the man that Juliet is to marry against her will, departs from her chambers and leaves her sitting at the edge of her bed. The music swells and crashes into chaos like the thoughts in Juliet’s mind as she just sits there trying to decide what to do. Most choreographers would have Juliet moving about but Macmillan did the opposite for a highly dramatic effect. “It was such a huge thing that one couldn’t choreograph it,” reminisces Christopher Gable.

But what MacMillan did choreograph was absolute genius. The iconic balcony scene pas de deux begins with Romeo doing an exuberant solo which Bonelli accomplishes with lush turns and soaring flights. When Juliet joins Romeo, we see some of the most lyrical dancing that builds up as Cuthbertson engages her partner in amorous foreplay, alternately skimming away from him then joining him again to be turned around in sexually charged lifts. The duo have great chemistry, aside from the fact that each individually has impeccable technique yet manage to act well to convince us that they are these two young individuals so ecstatically in love for the first time. The choreography is actually difficult. Donald MacLeary, one of the first Romeos in the 1965 production who now teaches the role to new dancers, recalls how, during rehearsals, one dancer would always pause between his extended solo and the point where he unites with Juliet when he should do it seamlessly without stopping. He kept committing the same mistake until he was given an ultimatum which finally made him do it properly in one flawless sweep — except that his final step was an exit to the back of the piano where he thereupon proceeded to throw up. Other mishaps are more serious. Cuthbertson was actually away for over a year to recover from surgery due to a serious injury when she slipped doing a very challenging step. This season, Natalia Osipova, one of the other Juliets, had to cancel due to injury as well. There are actually many alternating for the lead roles each season so as not to overwork the dancers and prevent unwanted injuries but accidents do happen and adjustments just have to be made.

Although the high points of the ballet are the pas de deuxs which Macmillan would work on first before developing the others around it, his other scenes are just as noteworthy, with some grand court dancing and fight scenes which, aside from Bonelli, other dancers like Ricardo Cervera as Mercutio and Bennet Gartside as Tybalt executed flawlessly. The corps was also excellent in the group scenes that transported you to the bustling streets and lavish palace balls of the story.

We were able to catch a backstage tour right before the show which brought us to the rehearsal studio where the dancers were doing classes and warming up for the performances that afternoon and evening. We realized how much work was invested daily with some of them dancing until past 10 or 11 in the evening. We also visited the costume department where we met wardrobe mistresses taking the utmost care in finishing the most exquisite costumes that will hold up to the most unforgiving close-ups when the productions hit the cinemas. Then we got a bird’s eye view of the platforms where people were shuttling about making sure everything was perfect with the sets and props.

It was a whole different world back there, the glimpse of which somehow enriched our experience of the ballet. It’s amazing how everything just comes together when the curtain rises. When those monumental sets come into view and the orchestra plays the lush score of Prokofiev, suddenly you are no longer in Covent Garden. It is 16th century Verona where you are captivated by the townspeople in Renaissance costumes and engrossed with the feuding Montagues and Capulets. And the moment Romeo and Juliet do their first pas de deux, it ‘s just pure enchantment. You get so involved in their love story that by the time they do their last duet at the finale, ugly as it may appear the way Romeo is desperately dragging the lifeless Juliet around the stage, ending with his tragic suicide and later Juliet’s taking her own life, the final image of the two star-crossed lovers united in death turns out to be a poignantly beautiful one that remains in the imagination for all eternity. It’s a universal tale so brilliantly told in dance that has withstood the test of the past 50 years and will surely weather 50 more. 

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For the calendar of performances and ticket sales, Backstage Tours, Velvet Gilt and Glamour Tours of the Auditorium, and Thurrock Production Workshop Tours, log on to www.roh.org.uk or call +44(0)207.304.4000. Follow the authors on Facebook - Ricky Toledo Chito Vijandre; Instagram @ rickytchitov and Twitter @RickyToledo23


All photos of Romeo & Juliet performances by Bill Cooper except Full stage sets scene by Johan PerssoN

Tybalt and Mercutio fight scene by Alice Pennefather, Royal Opera House

Photos of curtain call by Ricky Toledo


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