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By Joseph Carman
O, speak again, bright angel, for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven…
So says Romeo when gazing at the sight of Juliet standing on her balcony. Love is personified by Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers in a way that has translated sublimely into ballet’s mute form. Ballet vocabulary substitutes for Shakespeare’s verse via its elegance of line, emotional sweep, and ability to evoke an overtly romantic atmosphere. And nowhere is that more evident than in the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet. Why? Because here is where the protagonists share their rapture in an unbridled fashion and set the poignant tragedy in motion for the rest of the ballet.
Romeo and Juliet has emerged as the ultimate 20th-century full-length classical ballet, with its musical score by Sergei Prokofiev that distinctly maps out the plotline. But there are numerous productions of the Prokofiev ballet, and each lends a particular mood or style to the source material. Beginning with Leonid Lavrovsky’s world premiere for the Kirov Theater in 1940, major choreographers have been inspired to bring the innocent young lovers to the ballet stage: John Cranko, Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and Peter Martins, for example, have all seized upon the tale of the Capulets and the Montagues to elicit drama and passion.
The idea for the original Lavrovsky version came from brainstorming sessions between Sergei Radlov, artistic director of the Kirov; the dramaturge Adrian Piotrovsky; Lavrovsky; and Prokofiev. Although the composer finished writing the music in 1935, political problems and the Communist regime’s desire to tack a happy ending onto the story delayed the Kirov premiere until 1940. The incomparable Galina Ulanova starred as Juliet with Konstantin Sergeyev as her Romeo. When Romeo and Juliet finally made it to the stage, Ulanova jokingly said, “Never was a story of more woe than this of Prokofiev and his Romeo.” The ballet became a smash hit when it received its Bolshoi Ballet premiere in 1946 with Ulanova as Juliet (see sidebar).
By today’s standards, Lavrovsky’s balcony scene appears spare and expressionistic, but still quite moving, particularly with Ulanova’s Stanislavskian approach in the 1954 Bolshoi film of Romeo and Juliet. Juliet descends from the balcony to smell the fresh roses in the garden, when Romeo suddenly appears, startling, and then, delighting her. In one passage Juliet climbs onto Romeo’s chest. He stands facing upstage, and lifts her towards the stars. Characteristic of Soviet-era mime, Romeo boldly swears his love twice, and the athleticism is reserved for iconic Russian overhead lifts. As if to convince the audience of the authenticity of their love, the two dancers face front on demi-pointe while holding hands, their outer arms outstretched as if for a curtain call, and repeat the move facing upstage. It’s not difficult to see how this operatic style served as the prototype for all future productions of the ballet.
John Cranko first choreographed his Romeo and Juliet for La Scala Ballet in 1958 (with a young Carla Fracci as Juliet). But it was his staging for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1962 with its stars Marcia Haydée and Richard Cragun that took the dance world by storm. In his balcony scene, designed by Jürgen Rose, the full moon beams luminously. Juliet appears on the balcony, hears a noise, sees Romeo and then hides behind a curtain. He makes the first move by climbing up to the balcony and lifting her down. After an expressive solo for Romeo, they dance Cranko’s pas de deux, rife with ingenious partnering that takes the bravura Soviet style even further, punctuated with neoclassical touches, such as pirouettes that evolve into promenades in deep plié on pointe for Juliet. The feeling of the duet is that the two lovers can barely fathom their mutual joy and couldn’t possibly love anyone else in the world. Romeo gallantly lifts her onto the balcony and kisses her one last time before he departs.
Perhaps the best-known and arguably most universally beloved version of the balcony scene concludes the first act in Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography for The Royal Ballet, which debuted at Covent Garden in 1965. MacMillan, who was friends with Cranko, was inspired by his staging and wanted to do his own elegant version with Nicholas Georgiadis’ sets and designs that evoked Franco Zeffirelli’s theater production for the Old Vic. Although choreographed on Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, the premiere was danced by the legendary team of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
The distinct musicality of MacMillan’s choreography, combined with the breathless partnering that articulates the hopes of love arrived, have helped to make this balcony scene so popular. When Juliet, longingly thinking of her night at the ball, spots Romeo in the garden, they watch each other motionlessly for a full four measures before making a move, perhaps anticipating that once the emotions are unleashed, they’ll never backtrack. Juliet rushes down the stairs (one of Fonteyn’s greatest moments onstage). Swooning, swooping lifts and backbends are interspersed with partnered pirouettes that spiral like a force of nature. A kneeling Romeo caresses Juliet’s dress with his face. He lifts her horizontally onto his shoulder and moves back into a seated position, then rises up again repeatedly in a sensual fashion. To the pizzicato string passages, Juliet performs lighter-than-air piqué arabesques around Romeo; the audience feels the flutter of her heartbeat. They kiss and Juliet runs back up the stairs before Romeo is discovered. Their tryst is a fait accompli.
It’s both fun and enlightening to compare various renditions of the MacMillan balcony scene on YouTube. In addition to the yin/yang of Fonteyn and Nureyev’s ideal feminine and masculine partnership, there are Gelsey Kirkland and Anthony Dowell (breathtaking classical perfection wedded with romantic poetry); and Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca (all passion, all verismo, all the time). It clearly shows why the best dancer/actors yearn to dance these roles.
In 2007, Peter Martins choreographed his Romeo + Juliet with the intention of returning it to the original realm of young teenagers. The balcony scene, with a straight, steep staircase in Per Kirkeby’s spare décor, is indicative of the gestalt of the entire ballet. If the result is more of an exercise in abstract musicality than of a real place in a real time, the steps still convey a sense of windswept temperaments. With her hair set loose, Juliet could be one of the women in Serenade who finds the right guy at the right moment. They cover space, using the entire stage as a lovers’ landscape. When they kiss, Juliet is seated on the floor, her arms encircling the face of her standing Romeo. Many of the off-balance steps look like they could be set to Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” like Balanchine’s Who Cares? Nonetheless, the overall sentiment of the scene suffices.
Numerous other companies, whether regional, small or medium-sized, have mounted their own productions of Romeo and Juliet. An example is Michael Pink’s version, premiered in 2007 for the Milwaukee Ballet, which has also been danced by the Atlanta Ballet. In his balcony scene, Pink lets Romeo lead the action. His moving solo speaks in a beseeching manner for Juliet to descend from the balcony. She’s reluctant, perhaps a little more wise to the repercussions of their meeting. Eventually she relents, gets caught in the whirlwind of danced emotion, and then retreats back to the staircase, where he finally convinces her that this is a good idea. Pink utilizes contemporary movement, such as knee slides for Romeo and a liberal use of the torso and back for Juliet.
It’s no surprise that Romeo and Juliet, whatever the production, makes for good box office. Who isn’t a fool for love? At the heart of the ballet lies the balcony scene, which feels like a full ballet in itself with a complete dramatic arc. There’s nothing like a healthy dose of romanticism to take us away from the woes of the world. In the balcony scene all is perfect, at least in those fleeting moments.
As the moonlit Juliet says before she leaves Romeo:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Joseph Carman is a senior advising editor at Dance Magazine.
From top: Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta of The Royal Ballet in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Dee Conway, Courtesy Royal Ballet; Irina Dvorovenko and Roberto Bolle of ABT in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photo by MIRA, Courtesy ABT; Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
She made Juliet famous in ballet—and made the Bolshoi famous too.
The Prokofiev/Lavrovsky Romeo and Juliet, starring Ulanova, was an immediate success when it premiered at the Kirov in 1940—and even more so when she danced it with the Bolshoi in 1946. But it wasn’t until the Bolshoi toured England in 1956 and the U.S. in 1959 that the glory of her Juliet burst upon the awareness of the West. She was called “the wonder of the world” in The New York Times. Since that moment, we’ve regarded the Bolshoi as definitely Big in ballet. Here are some quotes about Ulanova as Juliet, including one from Ulanova herself.
“She is the genius of Russian ballet, its elusive soul, its inspired poetry.…Ulanova
reaches a depth of expression unprecedented in 20th-century ballet.” —Sergei Prokofiev
“It is magic. Now we know what we lack. Ulanova’s dance…is so marvelous I can’t find words for it.” —Margot Fonteyn in 1956
“Work on Romeo was difficult. We didn’t immediately feel Prokofiev’s music. To begin with, it seemed to us to be undanceable, awkward. One even had to count in order not to miss a bar. On top of which there was also the character to demonstrate, and Shakespeare and Prokofiev to study. Prokofiev’s Juliet is romantic, Shakespeare’s is more earthy. I had to find a Juliet that would combine both the one and the other.…After the first night performance, an excited and pleased Prokofiev took endless curtain calls with us.…He asked me, ‘What else would you like to dance?…Let me write Cinderella for you.’ ” —Ulanova wrote in her diary, 1940
“She was a mess. Like an old lady…she looked a hundred .…And then…in front of our very eyes—no makeup, no costume—she became 14.…And our hearts! We couldn’t even breathe. And then she did that run across the stage after the poison scene: Well—we were all screaming and yelling, like at a football match.” —Antoinette Sibley about an onstage rehearsal, 1956
Sources are Galina Ulanova: 100 by Vladimir Vasiliev and Marina Panfilovich; and Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans, both published in 2010.