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#Throwback Thursday: Romeo and Juliet

This year's Royal New Zealand Ballet season will feature the ballet Romeo and Juliet, also the subject of this week's #ThrowbackThursday article.

Steven McRae and Alina Cojocaru, Royal Ballet

Romeo and Juliet is, of course, based on the Shakespeare play of the same name. The familiar tale of the star-crossed lovers, kept apart by families which hate each other and tragically dying in their attempt to be together, is also taken from the famous tragedy. The original ballet was choreographed by Ivo Vana-Psota, to music specially composed by Sergei Prokofiev (who also composed other ballet scores such as Cinderella and The Tale of the Stone Flower).

Eugenia Obraztsova and Herman Cornejo, American Ballet Theatre

The subject was first suggested to Prokofiev by Adrian Piotrovsky, who created the libretto with Sergey Radlov. Prokofiev then composed a score suitable for a 'drambalet' (a dramatised ballet) in September 1935. The ballet was intended for the Kirov Theatre, which usually patronised such ballets; however, Radlov resigned from the Kirov in June 1934. A new agreement was reached with the Bolshoi Theatre, on the condition that Piotrovsky remained involved.

Laura Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli, Royal Ballet

The work ran into another obstacle; originally (and in a sharp deviation from the Shakespearian drama) the ballet was to have a happy ending. This did not sit well with Soviet cultural officials, and when the staff of the Bolshoi Theatre were overhauled by the chairman of the Committee on Arts Affairs, Platon Kerzhentsev, the ballet was postponed indefinitely. There followed a period of fear and caution within the theatrical community following the publication of two notorious Pravda newspapers criticising several prominent members of the community (including Piotrovsky) for 'degenerate modernism'. The conductor Yuri Fayer, who later conducted the premiere of the ballet, frequently visited Prokofiev during the period of composition and urged him to revert to the traditional ending, which Prokofiev eventually did.

American Ballet Theatre

Though pieces of the score were heard prior in Moscow and the United States, the full ballet did not premiere until 30 December 1938, at the Mahen Theatre in Brno (then in Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic). This version was a one-act ballet, and made little impact on the dance world. The ballet from which all modern versions derive was premiered by the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad on 11 June 1940. The now three-act ballet was re-choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky, who also significantly revised the score (despite the objections of Prokofiev). Galina Ulanova and Konstantin Sergeyev starred as Juliet and Romeo. The production was the subject of international acclaim, and received the Stalin Prize. It was filmed in 1955, with Ulanova reprising Juliet alongside Yuri Zhdanov as Romeo.

Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada, San Francisco Ballet

There have been many versions of the ballet over the succeeding years. Sir Frederick Ashton created a version for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1955, followed by John Cranko's 1962 production for the Stuttgart Ballet. Sir Kenneth Macmillan's 1965 production for the Royal Ballet helped Margot Fonteyn rejuvenate her career with the famous partnership between herself and Rudolf Nureyev. In 1977, Nureyev himself created a new version for the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet). The production remains a popular piece in the repertoire, and is also performed by the La Scala Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet.

Fonteyn and Nureyev in rehearsal with Kenneth Macmillan

In 1979, Yuri Grigorovich staged a new version for the Bolshoi Ballet, which was revived in 2010. More modern works include Jean-Christophe Maillot's 1996 work Romeo et Juliette for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and Peter Martins' 2007 Romeo + Juliet for the New York City Ballet. On 4 July 2008, the original Prokofiev score received a worldwide premiere, having been uncovered and revived with the permission of Prokofiev's family by Simon Morrison. Mark Morris choreographed a new version to the rediscovered music, premiered by his company the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York. The Royal New Zealand Ballet will debut a version choreographed by artistic director Francesco Ventriglia. Prokofiev's score remains famous in its own right and is often performed as a stand-alone piece.

Fonteyn and Nureyev

Here's the 'Balcony Scene', performed by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, 1966:

And Eugenia Obraztsova with Andrian Fadeyev in excerpts from the ballet:

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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