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Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You can’t resist a tragic love story. New Moon is your favorite book of the entire Twilight Saga and you can quote a certain passage from Act II, Scene VI of Shakespeare’s play by heart (don’t worry we won’t tell anyone). You’ve never been to the ballet and want to start with a tale that’s easy to follow in dance form.

Avoid If: Get thee gone, thou artless idle-headed pignut! (Ok, so you’re not a fan of The Bard)

Dream Casts

We asked our twitter followers and they said:

Juliet – Gelsey Kirkland, Yevgenia Obraztsova, Maria Kochetkova, Miriam Ould-Braham, Silvia Azzoni, Julie Kent, Alessandra Ferri, Alina Cojocaru

Romeo – Anthony Dowell, Vladimir Shklyarov, Igor Kolb, Jason Reilly, Friedemann Vogel, Angel Corella, Robert Fairchild, Steven McRae

Background

The Leonid Lavrovsky version

The idea for Romeo and Juliet as ballet came originally from Sergei Radlov, the Artistic Director of the Kirov (now the Mariinsky) around 1934. He developed the scenario together with theatre critic Adrian Piotrovsky and commissioned the music from one of his favorite Chess partners: Sergei Prokofiev who had never before composed for a full-length ballet.

Prokofiev finished the score on September, 1935 but the production was stalled when the communist regime demanded it be given a happy ending. Having shaped his score to match Radlov’s interpretation of the Shakespearean play Prokofiev was unhappy with this imposition.

Mariinsky's Vladimir Shklyarov and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Further political problems saw the project shelved and transferred to the Bolshoi where it was deemed unsuitable. The ballet was eventually salvaged by the Kirov and on January 11, 1940 Romeo and Juliet finally received its premiere, with choreography by Artistic Director Leonid Lavrovsky. Legendary Galina Ulanova was the original Juliet and Konstantin Sergeyev her Romeo. The ballet was hailed a success but it only became a phenomenon six years later when it was staged in The Bolshoi Theatre (December 28, 1946), resulting in Lavrovsky’s appointment as Artistic Director of the Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi toured London for the first time and staged Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet in the Covent Garden Stage (October 3, 1956) to great acclaim. Margot Fonteyn expressed she had “never seen anything like it” and budding choreographer John Cranko was so inspired by the ballet that he soon started to plan his own version.

Mariinsky's Viktoria Tereshkina and Yevgeny Ivanchenko in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

The John Cranko version

Cranko’s first staging of Romeo & Juliet was for the ballet company of La Scala in Milan in July 26, 1958. It was danced in an open amphiteatre in Venice. Designs were by Nicola Benois and the role of Juliet was danced by then 21 year-old Carla Fracci. Further revising the ballet Cranko staged it  in 1962 for his own company, The Stuttgart Ballet. Jürgen Rose was in charge of the designs and young Brazilian ballerina Marcia Haydée, soon to become Cranko’s muse, was cast in the role of Juliet, with Richard Cragun as Romeo.

Cranko’s staging is renowned for its strong corps de ballet dances, which set the atmosphere. The first scene takes place in the cramped streets of Verona, so both Montagues and Capulets are incapable of avoiding each other. In Act II the fight erupts amongst peasants on a harvest festival, with everyone involved and fruits being spilled around. At that time Cranko’s company were still developing their technique and identity so the choreography is relatively simple. When it comes to the various pas de deux one can see Lavrovsky’s influence in the very Soviet style of partnering with lifts and tosses.

Cranko’s version of Romeo and Juliet remains very popular and besides being a regular staple at the Stuttgart Ballet, it is also in repertory at The National Ballet of Canada, The Australian Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, The Joffrey, Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Pensylvannia Ballet, among others.

The Kenneth MacMillan version

Kenneth MacMillan, a close friend of Cranko’s from their dancing days in the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, was inspired to create his own version for The Royal Ballet after seeing it staged by The Stuttgart Ballet. An opportunity came when The Royal Opera House failed to secure a deal with the Bolshoi to exchange performance rights for Ashton‘s La Fille Mal Gardée against Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Ninette de Valois had also asked Sir Frederick Ashton to stage the version originally choreographed for The Royal Danish Ballet in 1955 but he feared that something created for a smaller theatre would look modest compared to the scale of the Russian production. Ashton, then Artistic Director, suggested to the Board of Directors that MacMillan should undertake the task of creating a new version.

Steven McRae and Alina Cojocaru in The Royal Ballet's production of MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

MacMillan had devised a balcony scene pas de deux for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable for a feature on Canadian television and once he received the go-ahead he started working on his first full-length ballet, nowadays one of Romeo and Juliet’s most definitive versions.

Designer Nicholas Georgiadis was inspired by Franco Zeffirelli‘s production of the Shakespearean tragedy for the Old Vic, in which the Capulets lived in a big fortress-like mansion. MacMillan wanted his ballet to be more realistic than romantic, with added contemporary touches. He wanted the young lovers to die painfully and to drop the reconciliation between Capulets and Montagues at the end of the play providing a different angle from the Lavrovsky & Cranko versions.

The ballet was choreographed on Seymour and Gable as Juliet and Romeo. As usual, MacMillan explored the role of the outsider in his portrayal of Juliet, a headstrong and opinionated girl who breaks away from her family. He started with the pas de deux (the highlights of this staging) and drew on the full company plus extras to set the town scenes.

While work was in progress Covent Garden management delivered the blow that Fonteyn and Nureyev would be first cast Juliet and Romeo, a shock to MacMillan, to Ashton (who had expected them as a first cast for the US tour  only) and to dancers Seymour and Gable who had to teach their roles and resign themselves to a lower spot on the bill.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

MacMillan’s pleas to Covent Garden management to keep Seymour and Gable in the premiere were in vain. His Romeo and Juliet premiered on February 9, 1965, with Fonteyn and Nureyev taking 43 curtain calls over a 40 minute applause. In the US it quickly became the best known version of the Prokofiev ballet. Besides the Royal Ballet, the ballet is also part of the regular repertory of American Ballet Theatre, The Royal Swedish Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet (with designs by Paul Andrews).

Story

You probably don’t need our help with this one. Regardless of version the storyline remains more or less the same:

Act I

Scene 1. The Market Place in Verona

It’s early hours in Verona. Romeo unsucessfully tries to woo Rosaline and is consoled by his friends Mercutio and Benvolio. As the market awakens and street trading starts a quarrel breaks out between the Montagues and the Capulets. Tybalt, Lord Capulet’s nephew, provokes Romeo’s group and the sword fighting begins with both Lord Montague and Lord Capulet joining in. Escalus, the Prince (or Duke) of Verona, enters and commands the families to cease fighting and issues a death penalty for any further bloodshed.

Scene 2. Juliet and her Nurse at the Capulet House

Lord Capulet’s only daughter Juliet is playing with her nurse. Her parents enter her chambers and inform Juliet of her impending engagement to the wealthy noblement Paris to whom she is to be formally introduced at the evening’s ball. In MacMillan’s version Juliet’s introduction to Paris happens at this point.

Scene 3. Outside the Capulet House

Guests are seen arriving at the Capulets’. Romeo,  still in pursuit of Rosaline, makes his way into the ball in disguise accompanied by Mercutio and Benvolio.

Scenes 4 & 5. The Ballroom & Outside the Capulet House

At the ball all eyes are on Juliet as she dances with her friends. Romeo becomes so entranced by her that he completely ignores Mercutio’s attempts to distract him. As Juliet starts to notice Romeo his mask falls. Juliet is immediately bewitched but Tybalt recognises Romeo and orders him to leave. Lord Capulet intervenes and welcomes Romeo and his friends as guests. At this point in MacMillan’s staging we see inebriated guests leaving and Lord Capulet stopping Tybalt from pursuing Romeo.

Scene 6. Juliet’s Balcony

Later that night Juliet is unable to sleep and stands on her balcony thinking about Romeo. Just then he appears on the garden below and they both dance a passionate pas de deux where they express their mutual feelings.

Mariinsky's Vladimir Shlyarov and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Mariinsky's Vladimir Shklyarov and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Act II

Scenes 1 & 2. The Market Place & Friar Laurence’s Chapel

As festivities are being held at the marketplace Romeo daydreams about getting married to Juliet. His reverie is broken when Juliet’s nurse makes her way through the crowds bringing him Juliet’s letter with the acceptance to his proposal. The young couple is secretly married by Friar Laurence, who hopes the union will end the conflict between their respective families.

Scene 3. The Market Place

Tybalt enters interruping the festivities. He provokes Romeo, who now avoids the duel, realising he is now part of Juliet’s family. Mercutio is willing to engage with Tybalt and, in vain, Romeo attempts to stop them. Mercutio is fatally wounded by Tybalt. Romeo seeking to avenge his friend’s death finally yields to Tybalt’s provocations and kills him. Romeo must now flee before being discovered by Prince of Verona. Curtains close as Lady Capulet grieves over Tybalt’s dead body and her breakdown is particularly emphasised in Cranko’s staging.

José Martín as Mercutio and Thiago Soares as Tybalt in The Royal Ballet's production of MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Act III

Scene 1. Juliet’s Bedroom

Romeo has spent his last night in Verona with Juliet but as dawn arrives he must flee for Mantua despite her pleas. To Juliet’s dismay Lord and Lady Capulet appear together with Paris to start preparations for the wedding. Juliet refuses to marry Paris and Lord Capulet threatens to disown her. In despair, Juliet seeks Friar Laurence’s counsel.

Scenes 2 & 3. Friar Laurence’s Chapel & Juliet’s Bedroom

Juliet begs Friar Laurence for help. He gives Juliet a sleeping potion that will make her fall into a deathlike sleep. This will make everyone believe Juliet is dead while the Friar will send for Romeo to rescue her. Juliet returns home and agrees to marry Paris. She drinks the potion and falls unconscious. Her friends and parents arrive the next morning and discover her lifeless.

Scene 4. The Capulet Family Crypt

Romeo has heard of Juliet’s death (in the Lavrovsky version we see Romeo break down in grief as the news are delivered to him) and has returned to Verona without having received Friar Laurence’s message. He enters the crypt disguised as a monk where he finds Paris by Juliet’s body. Stunned by grief, Romeo kills Paris (this is absent from Lavrovsky’s staging). Still believing Juliet to be dead Romeo drinks a vial of poison and collapses. Juliet awakes to find Romeo dead beside her. She stabs herself to join Romeo in death.

Epilogue (Lavrovsky version)

Both Montagues and Capulets gather together and reconcile before their children’s bodies.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet's production of MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Videos:

Other versions

Prokofiev’s masterful composition for Romeo and Juliet is now better known than any other but a number of earlier and later productions of the ballet have been set to different scores and choreography:

  • Antony Tudor‘s Romeo and Juliet for Ballet Theatre, now ABT (1943), set to various pieces of music by Frederick Delius.

  • Sir Frederick Ashton’s Romeo and Juliet for The Royal Danish Ballet (1955). This is a signature Ashton piece with none of Lavrovsky’s influence (as Ashton had not yet seen that staging). Clips of the revival by London Festival Ballet with Katherine Healy as Juliet can be found here [link]

  • Maurice Béjart‘s  Romeo and Juliet (1966). Set to the music of Berlioz this version was presented at the Cirque Royal, Brussels. A video featuring Suzanne Farrell as Juliet and Jorge Donn as Romeo can be found here [link]

  • Rudolf Nureyev’s version for the London Festival Ballet (1977). Nureyev later reworked this same version for the Paris Opera Ballet (1984). The ballet is available on DVD with Monique Loudieres as Juliet and Manuel Legris as Romeo. Clips can be seen here [link]

  • John Neumeier‘s for the Frankfurt Ballet (1971). This version was restaged for his own Hamburg Ballet in 1974. It has also been further revised and staged by The Royal Danish Ballet. Clips can be seen here [link]

  • Yuri Grigorovich‘s version for the Bolshoi (1982) set to Prokofiev’s score. This version is still danced by the company.

  • Jean Christophe Maillot‘s Rómeo et Juliette for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo (1996). This version has been staged by other companies, most recently by Pacific Northwest Ballet. A trailer can be found in PNBallet’s YT channel [link]

  • Peter Martins’s Romeo + Juliet for NYCB (2007). A series of videos following the ballet’s creative process can be found on NYCB‘s channel [link]

Music

Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet is considered one of the four greatest orchestral compositions for ballet (together with Tchaikovsky’s scores for Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker). He originally conceived the score as 53 sections linked by the dramatic elements of the story, each section named after the characters and/or situations in the ballet.

Like Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev developed leitmotifs for the characters. There are 7 themes for Juliet varying from her playful/girlish side in Act I to romantic and dramatic themes which follow her development into a woman in love and foreshadow the impending tragedy in Act III.

A quintessential Spotify / iPod playlist should include the three orchestra suites (Opus 64bis, Opus 64ter and Opus 101)

  1. Suite No 1. Folk Dance, The Street Awakens, Madrigal, The Arrival of Guests, Masks, Romeo and Juliet, Death of Tybalt.
  2. Suite No 2. Montagues and Capulets, Juliet the Young Girl, Dance, Romeo and Juliet before parting, Dance of the Girls with Lilies, Romeo at Juliet’s Grave.
  3. Suite No 3. Romeo at the Fountain, Morning Dance, Juliet, The Nurse, Morning Serenade, The Death of Juliet.

Mini-Biography

Choreography: Leonid Lavrovsky
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Pyotr Williams
Original Cast: Galina Ulanova as Juliet and Konstantin Sergeyev as Romeo
Premiere: January 11, 1940, Kirov Theatre, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

Choregraphy: John Cranko
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Jürgen Rose
Original Cast: Marcia Haydée as Juliet and Richard Crangun as Romeo
Premiere:December 2, 1962, Stuttgart.

Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Nicholas Georgiadis
Original Cast: Margot Fonteyn as Juliet and Rudolf Nureyev as Romeo
Premiere:February 9, 1965 at Covent Garden, London.

Sources and Further Information

  1. The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet (Kenneth MacMillan) Programme Notes, 2007/2008 Season.
  2. Romeo & Juliet entry at www.KennethMacmillan.com [link]
  3. Wikipedia entry for Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet score [link]
  4. Romeo and Juliet Notes (John Cranko) from National Ballet of Canada [link]
  5. Notes from Tbsili Opera and Ballet Theatre [link]
  6. Ballet Met Notes [link]
  7. Stuttgart Ballet Performance Notes at Cal Performances [link]
  8. Dedicated Romeo and Juliet. Dance review by Anna Kisselgoff. New York Times, July 1998 [link]
  9. From London, a Poetic Romeo that makes others seem prosy. Dance review by Anna Kisselgoff. New York Times, 1989 [link]
  10. Romeo and Juliet, Theatricality and Other Techniques of Expression by Katherine S. Healy. Following Sir Fred’s Steps, Ashton’s Legacy. Edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau. Conference Proceedings, 1994 [link]
  11. Opposing Houses: Judith Mackrell on visions of Romeo and Juliet from Ashton and MacMillan. Dance review, The Independent. August, 1994 [link]
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Is this ballet for you?

Go if: For the past few years you have overdosed on too many Nutcrackers and would like to see something different. You are dreaming of a White Christmas, sleigh bells in the snow, etc.

Skip if: Cute and/or nostalgic Edwardian Christmases are not your thing.

Sarah Lamb, José Martin & Mara Galeazzi in Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson /ROH ©

Background

British ballet owes a huge debt to Sir Frederick Ashton, one of its most important choreographers and a big advocate of classical tradition. Ashton was born in Ecuador in 1904 and grew up in Peru where his father was in the diplomatic service. He became spellbound by classical ballet after seeing Anna Pavlova on tour in 1917. Upon arriving in Britain he started training as a dancer but shortly thereafter, encouraged by Marie Rambert, he turned to choreography.

Despite his late start Ashton’s professional aspirations in dance led him to admire and embrace classical tradition in ballet. He once opined: “The idea so often expressed that classical technique is hampering to artistic expression is erroneous and misleading”. Upholding the Petipa heritage he developed his own style, which combined academically unorthodox movements with classical ballet, and created a vast repertoire for the budding British ballet company which would soon become The Royal Ballet.

Ashton was Balanchine‘s contemporary but while Mr. B – another classicist who admired the beauty of dance – opted for abstration and minimalism Ashton approached it from a different perspective. Rather than reduce ballet to bare essentials he tried to convey warm feelings and an idealised image of the world, often focusing on narrative. All of these qualities are evident in Les Patineurs, one of his earlier works.

The Ballet

In Les Patineurs we can see Ashton’s beautiful world at play: scenes commonly found in an ice-rink over Christmas season, with couples romantically skating hand in hand, the bravura teen dazzling the crowd with his daredevilish spins, beginners clinging onto whatever is in front of them to avoid the humiliation of falling on ice. All of these moments are wrapped up in gorgeous 1930’s scenery and Edwardian fur-trimmed outfits.

The inspiration for Les Patineurs came from composer Constant Lambert. Lambert admired Giacomo Meyerbeer‘s opera Le Prophète which featured a short comic relief sequence with dancers on roller skates. He reorchestrated the piece and showed it to Ashton who set to choreograph a new ballet which preserved the lighthearted nature of the original work.

Alexandra Ansanelli and Valeri Hristov in Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

The result was a 27-minute long plotless yet accessible ballet, with choreography that makes the dancers look like they are ice skating and scenes familiar to anyone who has ever been to an ice rink. It is an ideal work for first timers and balletomanes alike, especially for those keen on observing early Ashton. The ballet demands a supple upper body to cope with the fluidity of movement combined with fast footwork for the lower body. The result should look easy and simple, even if the movement’s fundamentals are demanding, as in the duet for the two Red Girls.

Les Patineurs follows a classical structure of divertissements, virtuoso variation, a central pas de deux and ensemble pieces that form a complete whole. Each character has a specific role with various social interactions taking place at the ice rink, with an overall mood of sophistication, enchantment and wonder.

Around the World

Les Patineurs has been staged by many ballet companies and grew extremely popular in the US where it was performed by American Ballet Theatre and The Joffrey, both versions having been telecast in the 70’s. ABT’s production boasted designs by the great Cecil Beaton, with forest green instead of blue for the virtuoso soloist’s costume. More recently, it has been added to Sarasota Ballet’s repertoire.

Music

The music for Les Patineurs was arranged by Constant Lambert who orchestrated different selections from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete together with the aria “Bel Cavalier” from L’Etoile du Nord.

Les Patineurs has been recorded by the National Philarmonic Orchestra, conducted by Richard Bonynge. The score is available through Amazon and tracklisting is as follows:

Entrée and Pas de Huit
Variation (blue boy/skater)
Pas de Deux (white couple/the lovers)
Ensemble
Pas de Trois
Pas de Patineuses
Ensemble
Galop Finale

Cindy Jourdain and Laura McCulloch in Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton
Music: Giacomo Meyerbeer (selections from the operas Le Prophete and L’Etoile du nord). Arranged and orchestrated by Constant Lambert.
Original Designs: William Chappell
Original Premiere: 16 February 1937. Vic-Wells Ballet, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London.
Original Cast: Mary Honer, Elizabeth Miller, Harold Turner, Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Pamela May, June Brae.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Dancing Ashton by David Vaughan. Dance Magazine, July 2004 [link]
  2. ROH Entry for Les Patineurs, A Short ballet with music by Meyerbeer. [link]
  3. Frederick Ashton and His Ballets by David Vaughan. Ashton Archive, 2004. [link]
  4. A Spinning, Twisting Tribute to Ashton, With Skaters and Pigeons by Alistair Macaulay. Dance Review. New York Times, December, 2008. [link]
  5. Sarasota Ballet entry for Les Patineurs. [link]
  6. Ballet: A stylist Joffrey Patineurs by Anna Kisselgoff. Dance Review, New York Times, January, 1983. [link]
  7. Frederick Ashton by John Percival. ROH Programme Notes for Les Patineurs/Tales of Beatrix Potter, December 2007.

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Is this ballet for you?

Go if: you want to treat your kids, godchildren, nieces and nephews or even perhaps the kid in you.

Skip if: Bah humbug!

Dream Cast

Sugar Plum Fairy: any ballerina who can do proper gargouillades

Alina Cojocaru as The Sugar Plum Fairy. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Background

The Nutcracker is a major example of a balletic twist of fate. The very thing critics and audiences objected to at the time of its premiere 117 years ago – its appeal to children – is what turned it into such a bankable classic. From your local end of the year ballet school presentation to the most lavish productions for the big companies and every kind of thing in-between (even Nutcracker on Ice), Christmas season has now become saturated with Nutcrackers everywhere.

Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the same Imperial Theatre Director who had brought together Tchaikovsky and Petipa for his ambitious project The Sleeping Beauty had imagined a new ballet to be based on the book L’Histoire d’un Casse Noisette by Alexandre Dumas père. This was a story he knew from his time in Paris as a diplomat and which Dumas himself had adapted from Ernst Theodor Amadeus (E.T.A.) Hoffmann‘s Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) from 1816.

Vsevolozhsky managed to secure Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s collaboration again but Tchaikovsky only agreed to write for The Nutcracker on the basis that he would also be able to work on his opera Iolanta. Because Petipa had fallen ill he ended up working mostly with the choreographer’s assistant Lev Ivanov. Although Tchaikovsky’s music was appreciated (but again thought too symphonic for a ballet) the production was criticized, mainly for the lack of logic relationship between its two acts. The Nutcracker received only 14 performances initially. Some critics thought there was not enough complexity in the story and “no subject whatever”. To critics and audiences alike, the Nutcracker was a luxurious piece but one that was “made for children”.

The Nutcracker in the West

Although it was not considered much of a hit in Russia The Nutcracker kept being performed throughout the theatre year (at that time it was not yet heavily associated with the Christmas season). In the West, however, it boomed. First seen in scattered pieces, with the Arabian dance transplanted into the Ballets Russes’s Sleeping Princess and with Anna Pavlova‘s take on The Waltz of the Snowflakes, London audiences soon got the first full version.

Most versions have some links back to the original but by the time they were staged much of the choreography had been lost and/or changed. This meant that Ivanov’s original Waltz of the Snowflakes had to be reconstructed from notations (presumably incomplete) made in St. Petersburg before WWI.  Likewise, Ivanov’s Grand Pas De Deux in which Prince Coqueluche (Koklush) spread out a veil gently gliding the Sugar Plum Fairy as if she were on ice (or icing sugar) has been revised or scrapped in most versions although Balanchine’s Nutcracker still pays homage to it.

Elizabeth Harrod as Clara and Alastair Marriott as Drosselmeyer, in The Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Johan Persson/ ROH ©

Perhaps the biggest downside to so many different Nutcracker versions over the years has been the progressive watering down of E.T.A Hoffmann’s original story and its aura of mystery, rooted in the German Romantic movement. Hoffmann’s tales often include fantastic elements coexisting with folklore (another example being Coppélia) which are sometimes ignored in favour of the ballet’s child friendly aspects. However, some versions of the ballet seek to preserve the Romantic layers and its mystery, notably Nureyev’s version for the Paris Opera Ballet (POB) as well as Sir Peter Wright‘s for The Royal Ballet and for Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Versions

The first complete Nutcracker was staged in London by the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1934, based on choreographic notation by Nicholas Sergeyev. Ten years later saw the first US version by San Francisco Ballet (1944) and another ten years brought George Balanchine’s blockbusting version for NYCB (1954), now staged every year by several US ballet companies. By the 1980s, 300 separate productions were touring the US.

Sir Peter Wright’s versions

Sir Peter’s 1984 version of The Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet, still performed by the Company, stays close to Hoffmann’s original tale. It emphasises Drosselmeyer’s mission to find a young girl – Clara – who can break the curse imposed by the Mouse King on his nephew Hans Peter and thus restore him to human form. References to Nuremberg and German Christmas traditions are present in the settings, with a kingdom of marzipan featured in Act 2. Equally successful is his 1990 version for The  Birmingham Royal Ballet, this one closer to the Russian tradition of having Clara double up as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but with a slight twist: it is Clara’s alter ego ballerina doll who turns into the Fairy.

Jamie Bond as The Prince in Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

The Odd Ones

Nureyev’s production for POB has a clear emphasis on symbology and the subconscious: Clara wanders down the stairs at midnight to find her family and friends turned into rats and bats while Drosselmeyer transforms into a handsome prince.

Mikhail Baryshnikov‘s 1976 popular version for ABT turns the Christmas dream into a coming-of-age tale. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy nor Prince Koklush, the focus being Clara’s encounter with the Nutcracker Prince as orchestrated by her Godfather Drosselmeyer. As the ballet ends so does Clara’s fantasy.

More recently the ballet has seen a flurry of ironic takes. In Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut (1991) the Stahlbaums are a suburban family with a fake Christmas tree, bad hairdos and too much to drink, the second act Arabian divertissement being a trio for oil sheiks. In Matthew Bourne‘s Nutcracker! (1992) Clara lives in an orphanage run by Mr. and Mrs. Dross and tries to win the heart of the hunky Nutcracker prince.

Story

These myriad versions make it impossible for us to list all the differences and twists in the various Nutcrackers around the world but the storyline is more or less always the same:

Characters

  • Herr Drosselmeyer
  • Clara (or Marie, or Masha)
  • Nutcracker Prince (or Hans Peter)
  • Sugar Plum Fairy
  • Her Prince Cavalier (Prince Koklush)

Act 1

A Christmas party is taking place at the Stahlbaums’, parents to Clara and Fritz. Drosselmeyer brings his goddaughter Clara a gift of a nutcracker doll.  Children being children, Fritz eventually grabs and breaks the Nutcracker doll much to Clara’s dismay. Drosselmeyer fixes it restoring peace amongst the youngsters. Guests depart and Clara suddently sees herself surrounded by a fantasy world, where the Christmas tree grows giant and dolls and soldiers come to life to battle with the mice who have also grown to Clara’s own size. She sees her Nutcracker doll leading the battle and being attacked by the Mouse King. She throws her slipper at the Mouse, liberating the Nutcracker who turns into a Prince. They embark on a magical journey, their first stop being the Land of Snow where snow flakes waltz around them in patterns, as if blown by the wind.

Act 2

Clara and her Nutcraker Prince arrive at the Kingdom of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince Cavalier. They are invited to watch a series of divertissements representing exotic travels and various different sweets: Chocolate (Spanish dance) Coffee (Arabian dance) Tea (Chinese dance), the Russian Trépak (Cossacks), Mother Ginger & the polichinelles (in certain versions), along with the dance of the little pipes/Mirlitons and the Waltz of the Flowers. The celebrations close with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince dancing a grand pas de deux. The curtain usually falls on Clara waking up back at home wondering whether it was all just a dream.

Roberta Marquez and Valeri Hristov in The Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Music

Tchaikovsky died in 1893 not knowing what a big success his work would achieve. He had been burned twice before writing for ballet (with Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty) so he was less than enthusiastic to do so again but Vsevolozhsky convinced him on the basis that he would also be able to write the opera Iolanta which interested him more and which premiered on the same day as the ballet. Paradoxically, his Nutcracker score became, over the years, the more celebrated of the two works.

Having received the joint commission, Tchaikovsky started on The Nutcracker writing to his brother Anatoly in March 1891 that “the main thing is to get rid of the ballet; as to the opera I am so fascinated by it that if I could have two weeks of peace I would be sure to finish it on schedule”. As he embarked on a trip to Berlin and Paris en route to an American tour that same year he heard of the death of his sister Sasha.  Perhaps for this reason a hint of sadness  and nostalgia permeates The Nutcracker‘s haunting score.

He finished composing the ballet on 6 July 1891 having added to it a novelty instrument which he had bought during his tour in Paris, the celesta, which he used to give The Sugar Plum Fairy her characteristic sound of heavenly bells.

An essential Nutcracker Spotify/Ipod playlist should include the below tracks:

Op.71 – Overture
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 1 The Christmas Tree
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 2 March
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 6 Clara and the Nutcracker
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 7 The Nutcracker Battles the Army of the Mouse King
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 8 In the Christmas Tree
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 9 Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 10 The Magic Castle on the Mountain of Sweets
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12a Character Dances: Chocolate (Spanish Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12b Character Dances: Coffee (Arabian Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12c Character Dances: Tea (Chinese Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12d Character Dances: Trépak (Russian Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12e Character Dances: Dance of the Reed Pipes
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12f Character Dances: Polchinelle
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 13 Waltz of the Flowers
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14a Pas de deux: Intrada
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14b Pas de deux: Variation I (Tarantella)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14c Pas de deux: Variation II (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14d Pas de deux: Coda
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 15 Final Waltz and Apotheosis

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Original Designs: M.I. Botcharov with K. Ivanov wit costumes by I.A. Vsevolozhsky
Original Cast: Antoinetta dell’Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerd as Prince “Koklush” (also known as Prince Coqueluche or Orgeat), Nikolay Legat as The Nutcraker Prince and Timofei Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer.
Premiere: 6 December 1892 Mariinsky (also credited as 17 December 1892)

Where to see it in the UK

The Royal BalletThe Nutcracker is in repertoire at the Royal Opera House from November 26 to January 1st. For booking details visit the ROH website.

Birmingham Royal BalletThe Nutcracker is in repertoire at the Birmingham Hippodrome from November 27 to December 13. For booking details visit The Birmingham Hippodrome’s website.

English National BalletThe Nutcracker, with choreography by Christopher Hampson, is in repertoire at the London Coliseum from December 16 to January 3. For booking details visit the ENO website.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Royal Opera House Nutcracker podcast
  2. The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker Programme Notes.
  3. The Nutcracker History by Gerald Charles. Ballet Met Notes for The Nutcracker, November 1998 [link]
  4. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker/Swan Lake/The Sleeping Beauty Highlights. Naxos Recording with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. [link]
  5. The Refined Product of a Great Artist: Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta by Hugo Shirley. Opera Holland Park. [link]
  6. Nuts, Sluts, Rats and Bats by Judith Mackrell. The Guardian, December 2001. [link]
  7. How to Design the Nutcracker by Ismene Brown. The Arts Desk [link]
  8. Breaking Pointe: The Nutcracker is a Gift that Takes More than it Gives by Sarah Kaufman. The Washington Post [link]
  9. Wikipedia entry on The Nutcracker [link]

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Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You like intensely physical dancing molded from contemporary choreography. Tetley’s work is as a balanced mixture of classical ballet and modern dance. You like greek mythology and/or ballets drawn from literary sources, in this case, a Jean Cocteau play.

Skip If: You are allergic to colourful 70’s style bodysuits or you are a Petipa purist who doesn’t fancy ballet crossed over with Martha Graham.

©BC20091102221

Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Dream Cast

Sphinx: Gillian Murphy (ABT), Marianela Nuñez (RB) or any strong-but-alluring technician (NYCB’s Ashley Bouder would be great in this role)

Oedipus: Ethan Stiefel (ABT), Rupert Pennefather (RB) or any Greek hero-looking dancer

Anubis: Edward Watson (RB) or any edgy/virtuoso dancer (NYCB’s Daniel Ulbricht would be a perfect complement for a Bouder Sphinx)

Background

TETLEY_Glen

Glen Tetley. Photo: ROH © Martha Swope

To understand Glen Tetley‘s unique style, one needs to go back to his roots. Few choreographers have been able to so harmoniously mix influences from so many different schools of dance. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Tetley started training as a dancer at the late age of 16 after seeing Nora Kaye and Hugh Laing in American Ballet Theatre‘s production of Romeo & Juliet. A move to New York and a random visit to a friend lead him to become the understudy in a Broadway production ran by none other than Jerome Robbins, who immediately recognised Glen’s talent and potential.

While performing on Broadway, Tetley continued to train intensively in dance. He studied modern dance with Martha Graham and Hanya Holm, classical ballet at the School of American Ballet (SAB) and with Anthony Tudor. He became very interested in the stylistical impact Asian movement could make on modern dance. Given the frictions between modern and classical dance at the time, he shut himself in his studies and carried on with a paralell degree in Chemistry (NYU), which allowed him to explore opportunities in theatre and literature at the University. With this foundation he built not only his own dance vocabulary, but enough ideas to develop as a choreographer.

Tetley’s style is a blend of notions from all these various dance schools. His choreography has the fluidity and lyricism of classical ballet but also the impact, athleticism and breadth of movement that comes from modern dance, which is very open and fills the stage. Classical dancers often say that dancing Tetley’s works have helped them become better dancers.

Context & Storyline

Tetley’s inspiration for Sphinx came from his passion for literature. The ballet is his personal take on Act II of The Infernal Machine, a play by Jean Cocteau. It was originally created for ABT on ballerina Martine van Hamel to the music of Martinů‘s Double Concerto for two String Orchestras.

The Myth of Oedipus:

In Ancient Greece the myth of Oedipus was passed down from one generation to the next. First references to it date back to 7th century BC with Homer and Hesiod and, a few centuries later, via Aeschylus and Sophocles who wrote their own accounts of Oedipus’s tragedy from a combination of several different sources.

Oedipus was the son of Laius, king of Thebes, and Jocasta. He was abandoned at birth owing to a prophecy by the Oracle of Delphi who foretold Laius and Jocasta that he would kill his father and marry his own mother. To avoid this fate, his father binds his ankles together with a pin and instructs a shepherd to take the boy away and kill him. The shepherd, full of pity, leaves the baby in the hands of another shepherd from Corinth who takes him to king Polybus and queen Merope. They  adopt him and name him Oedipus (swollen feet).

One of the key incidents in the story is Oedipus’s encounter with the Sphinx. The adult Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not the biological son of Polybus and Merope. Suspicious, he asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. Instead of answering this question the Oracle tells him that he is destined to kill his own father and wed his mother. Desperate to avoid this fate and still believing Polybus and Merope to be his true parents, Oedipus sets on a journey to faraway Thebes. On his way he encounters a Sphinx which serves as a gatekeeper. In order to pass and to avoid being eaten by the creature all travelers must correctly answer a riddle. The sphinx serves Oedipus the following riddle:

What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?

Oedipus is the first traveler to answer correctly. He responds:

Man: as infant he crawls on all fours, as an adult he walks on two legs and in old age he relies on a walking stick.

The Sphinx, defeated, throws herself from a cliff onto her death.

Cocteau’s play:

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau, 1864. Source: Wikipedia

Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine is a rework of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) where the Sphinx is not a beast but an immortal woman who has grown weary and longs to fall in love with a human, in this case Oedipus. Cocteau kept its ancient setting but gave the dialogue a modern treatment and added a third character, Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, who is allied with the Sphinx to kill those who don’t answer the riddle. Given the play’s focus on fate vs. free will and other contemporary themes, Cocteau’s Oedipus could be any young man searching for his own identity, while Thebes could be any major city, with its problems and vices.

The Ballet:

Tetley’s ballet recreates The Meeting of Oedipus and the Sphinx (from Act II of the play). For the Sphinx he introduced elegant angular arms and dynamic footwork given that the mythological creature is originally a winged lion with a human head.  To represent the ominous Anubis and his warnings to the Sphinx he choreographed vigourous solos with fast turns and jumps, while Oedipus dances adagio sections and a very demanding pas de deux with the Sphinx, full of complex lifts.  The immortal woman-Sphinx falls in love and yields to Oedipus, revealing to him the answer to the riddle. Confronted by Anubis, Oedipus raises several fingers and waves his hands in “reply” to the riddle. The Sphinx loses her power and Oedipus leaves unharmed without so much as a thank you for the answer. The ballet ends with the Sphinx  returning to her winged platform to die under the ever watchful eyes of Anubis.

Music

Initially Tetley had commissioned an original score from Paul Chihara with whom he had discussed the story, but he ultimately disliked the material proposed. Turning to his music collection, he uncovered Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani and decided to use it in his ballet. Czech composer Martinů (1890-1959) was a big exponent of Neoclassicism His compositions often reference Czech folk music but with a prominent role for the piano, which point to his admiration for the works of Debussy and Stravinsky.

Sphinx is part of the Royal Ballet’s Autumn triple bill, which runs from 4 Nov – 18 Nov. For booking and further details, visit The Royal Opera House Website.

Mini-Biography

Choreography: Glen Tetley. Libretto based on Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (La Machine Infernale)
Music: Bohuslav Martinů
Designs: Rouben Ter-Arutunian
Costumes: Willa Kim
Original Cast: Martine van Hamel, Clark Tippet, Kirk Peterson
Premiere: Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., 9 December 1977

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entries for Glen Tetley [link] and Bohuslav Martinů [link]
  2. Glen Tetley: Obituary by Jann Parry. The Guardian, January 2007.[link]
  3. Wikipedia Entry for Jean Cocteau [link]
  4. Bohuzlav Martinů Institute Website [link]
  5. Jean Cocteau (Critical Lives Series) by James S. Williams. Reaktion Books, January 2008. ISBN-10: 186189354X [link]
  6. The Royal Ballet’s 2009/2010 Season Preview, Press Release [link]
  7. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Dover Publications Inc.; Unabridged edition, October 1991. ISBN-10: 0486268772[link]
  8. Renaissance Man: Glen Tetley at 78. Interview by Karen Webb. Dance West Magazine, June 2004. Via Critical Dance [link]
  9. Review: Now That’s a Riddle: A Dancing Sphinx by Anna Kisselgoff. The New York Times, October 2001 [link]
  10. Discover Sphinx. ROH Discover Ballet Webpage [link]

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Go If

Agon is probably one of the quintessential Balanchine pieces in every balletomane’s punch card. You should go if you love Balanchine, abstract, short and/or neo-classical ballets. Or try it for the landmark score: this is where Stravinsky began exploring his twelve-tone technique (more on this below).

Skip If

You are a strictly 19th century classical ballet fan and all of the above makes you cringe, especially the thought of music without an overall melodic theme (as you often exit the theatre whistling to Swan Lake!).

Dream Cast

NYCB (particularly if Wendy Whelan dances the pas de deux), after all, they are the Balanchine company per excellence.

Background and Structure

Balanchine and Stravinsky. Source: Oberons Grove. Copyright belongs to its corresponding owners.

Balanchine and Stravinsky. Source: Oberon's Grove. Copyright belongs to its corresponding owners.

Around 1948 Balanchine‘s benefactor Lincoln Kirstein had an idea for a ballet which would form a “greek trilogy” together with that choreographer’s earlier collaborations with Stravinsky: Apollo and Orpheus. The concept was discussed at the time but a couple of years would pass before concrete plans were drawn and a structure agreed. Stravinsky started composing for the new ballet in 1953. He came up with the title Agon, the greek word for contest but also a  reference to the various 17th century French court dances he had studied from Lauze’s Apologie de la Danse (1623) and this set the frame for Balanchine’s choreography.

Agon marked the third and last time Stravinsky would specifically compose music for a Balanchine ballet (though the choreographer continued to use other Stravinsky music in  later works). On the other hand it was the first time where Stravinsky applied to his work 12-tone serialism techniques, which he had just started experimenting with.

Stravinsky’s previous compositions had been structured in diatonic scale, in other words, they had been based on major and minor scales (click links for audio examples), which give a strong feeling of a tonal center, the major keys a bright sound and the minor keys a moodier sound. One can build a diatonic scale by playing the white keys on a piano keyboard within an octave, in the sequence -Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do – (see figure) 

Octave on a Piano

Octave on a Piano. Image: Guido Tattoni © Source: Smack my pitch up

Between two half steps or semitones (Mi-Fa and Ti-Do – or in the picture Si-Do) there are either two whole steps or tones (Do-Re-Mi) or three whole steps (Fa-Sol-La-Ti), giving the diatonic scale its rich tonality and clear sounds.

There are however, other types of scales. Chromatic scales for instance are sequences of tones (whole steps) preceeded by semitones (half steps). One can build a chromatic scale by playing a sequence of black and white keys in order, without leaving any out. The result is uniform and different to the major scale above where tones and semitones are arranged in a particular way. A chromatic scale has 12 tones (NB: there are 12 tones or notes in an octave. Just count the number of keys in the figure above: Do, Do Sharp, Re, Re Sharp, Mi, Fa, Fa sharp, Sol, Sol sharp, La, La sharp, Ti).

The twelve-tone technique of serialism arranges notes from a chromatic scale so that in an octave none of its 12 notes prevail over another, each note appearing just once before a new series begins. This method was developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early twenties and later developed by his disciples Alban Berg and Anton von Webern. The resulting music is often referred to as atonal and cerebral.

Even though Agon starts with a diatonic, non-serial structure, Stravinsky combined parts that had a tonal centre (think of the violin solo in the coda of the first pas de trois) with serialist parts (the flute, mandolins & harps in the Galliard). In order to concentrate on other works and further his experience with serialism Stravinsky shelved Agon for a couple of years and then returned to create the central – very serialist – part of the work (the first coda and the bransles, ie. the moves from side to side), following Schoenberg and Webern’s ideas. 

Besides the new composition techniques, Stravinsky also used specific instruments to identify the dancers in the ballet – brass for men and woodwind for women – as well as traditional French court dance references: the bransles (couples dancing in circle, side to side), galliards (an athletic dance with plenty of jumps),  sarabande and pas de deux/quatre.

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Elliott Franks © Source: The Telegraph

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Elliott Franks © Source: The Telegraph

Balanchine built his choreography in response to Stravinsky’s score. Taking into account the serial 12-note concept he  conceived a ballet with 12 dancers (4 men and 8 women) and 12 movements (4 sections of 3 dances each). The ballet starts with the four male dancers facing the back of the stage and the dances develop as follows:

Pas de Quatre – the men
Double Pas de Quatre – the women
Triple Pas de Quatre – the ensemble

Prelude – 1 man, 2 women
Saraband-step – 1 man
Galliard – 2 women
Coda – 1 man, 2 women

Interlude – 2 men, 1 woman
Bransles:
Simple – 2 men
Gay 1 woman
Double – 2 men, 1 woman

Interlude – 1 man, 1 woman
Pas de Deux – 1 man, 1 woman*
Four Pas de Deux – the men and 4 women
Four Pas de Trois – the ensemble
Coda – the ensemble

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Source: The Guardian

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Source: The Guardian

The *pas de deux is one of Agon’s most unique features. The music sounds disjointed, with few instruments being used at a time, but it is still possible to identify the basic components: an adagio, two variations and a coda with the key difference of a role reversal for the dancers, the woman seeming to lead the male into assorted extreme poses rather than the opposite. There are several famous images such as the one where the ballerina wraps around her partner with her leg in attitude, or her 180º arabesque whilst the male dancer is lying on the floor.

PNBs Olivier Weavers and Louise Nadeau in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB © Source: ArtsPlace

PNB's Olivier Weavers and Louise Nadeau in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB © Source: ArtsPlace

When the score calls for serial 12-note themes, dancers respond with isolated movements and hints of the courtly dances on which they are based (the men bowing to the women). If the music presents a canon of two trumpets, the dancers perform in canon (ie. successively) to match the trumpets in the music. In the final section, as the score goes back to opening motifs, the dancers resume the same opening image of four male dancers facing the back of the stage.

Stravinsky finished the score in the spring of 1957 and Agon premiered on December 1, 1957, as part of a triple bill featuring Apollo and Orpheus. It was an easy winner with the audience, since it depicted classical ballet in a different and novel way, showing conflict and resolution between various forms of dance, movement and shape.

Videos

Sorry no YouTube videos! But there are certain DVDs and VHS* tapes (if you are able to view these) featuring glimpses of Agon.

  • Balanchine (1984) [link]
  • The Balanchine Celebration, Part Two* [link]
  • Bringing Balanchine Back [link]
  • Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas [link]
  • Peter Martins: Dancer* [link]

Music

Agon had its first concert performance in June 1957 in Los Angeles. It is still often performed on its own and much valued as a piece which combines both serial and non-serial elements. At an average length of 25 min, it can be easily uploaded to your favourite mp3 player. It can be downloaded from iTunes [link] or streamed via Spotify [link].

Mini-Biography

Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Original Cast: Todd Bolender, Barbara Milberg, Barbara Walczak, Roy Tobias, Jonathan Watts, Melissa Hayden, Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell.
Premiere: December 1, 1957, NYCB. City Center of Music and Drama, New York.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Agon in Context by Richard Jones. Ballet.co Magazine, April 2004. [link]
  2. Wikipedia Entry for Agon (ballet) [link]
  3. NYCB Agon Repertory Notes [link]
  4. 50 Years Ago, Modernism Was Given a Name: Agon by Alastair Macaulay. November 2007, NY Times [link]
  5. The Bransles of Stravinsky’s Agon: A Transition to Serial Composition by Bonnie S. Jacobi. [link]

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Kim Brandstrup. Copyright belongs to its owners. Source: GBCM

While at the main stage the Royal Ballet season kicks off in October with Mayerling, downstairs at the Linbury Studio the ROH2, Royal Opera House’s contemporary arm, makes a headstart next week with an exciting new collaboration between dancers Tamara Rojo, Thomas Whitehead, Steven McRae and choreographer Kim Brandstrup. Then, later in the season, Brandstrup goes back to the main stage for a repeat of his acclaimed one act ballet, Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story. Based on  one of the preliminary outlines for Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot and influenced by socialist realist movie aesthetic, the ballet furthered his range as a leading narrative choreographer.

With Brandstrup’s film school background it was natural that a ballet called Rushes (the name refers to raw, unedited film scenes) should contain all forms of reference and reverence to cinema, with its non linear narrative and action that takes place behind beaded curtains, just like a grainy movie from the 30’s. Movie-like structures are something of a leitmotif in his works, and in the past he has spoken of his rejection of classical ballet’s literal or linear plot development as compared to “film cuts” (see “in his own words” below). However, Brandstrup’s forthcoming Goldberg project with Tamara Rojo seems an altogether different proposition, an experiment with  “other ways of moving”, using Bach’s Goldberg Variations and drawing subtleties and “things  that go unnoticed in big stages” to the intimacy of the Linbury Studio. More information on this project can be found in a recent interview Brandstrup gave to dance writer Jane Simpson now posted to Ballet.co.uk.

Kim Brandstrup in a Nutshell

Born in Arhus, Denmark in 1956, the son of a contemporary artist, Kim attended a progressive school which encouraged creativity. He initially studied film at the University of Copenhagen, but switched to modern dance studies at age 19.

He moved to London in 1980 to study at the London School of Contemporary Dance where Nina Fonaroff was his teacher.

Kim founded his own company, Arc, in 1985 (Arc is currently in the backburner but he plans to bring it back, not as a full time company but on a project by project basis).

In 1989 he won the Olivier award for “Outstanding Achievement in Dance” with Orfeo, a piece he choreographed for the now extinct London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

The cinema never ceased to be an influence in his work, along with literature. Kim worked with Irek Mukhamedov on a commission of Othello (winner of the London Evening Standard Award for Most Outstanding Production) and created for his own company pieces such as Elegy which drew on characters from The Idiot and later Elegy’s enlarged version (Brothers) inspired by two other Dostoevskian tales.

He has choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet, the Rambert Dance Company, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and other companies in the UK and abroad.  He has been working with the Royal Ballet since 2003, having created dances for principals such as Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Zenaida Yanowsky, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae, Laura Morera, Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg.

Kim also works regularly with opera directors. One of his best known collaborations in this field was with director Phyllida Lloyd for Debussy’s one act opera “The Fall of the House of Usher”, where he choreographed the opening sequence featuring four dancing doubles of the opera characters, as performed by Steven McRae, Gary Avis, Leanne Benjamin and Johannes Stepanek. (This 2006 production is available on DVD).

He says his creations are triggered by the dancers he works with even if the music, theme or narrative have been chosen well in advance. For him, being in the studio with a particular dancer transforms a piece from concept to reality, tailoring the movement to their particular strengths and characteristics.

For Rushes he chose a rare, unpublished Prokofiev movie score (composed for a shelved film adaptation of The Queen of Spades) which he tracked from a tiny footnote in an article mentioning the score’s existence, liasing with a Princeton scholar and finally finding a copy in the Prokofiev archives at Goldsmiths College. What attracted Brandstrup was the structural freedom it gave him, the music was meant to be played underneath a dialogue so it was done in short, concise numbers.

In his own words:

Everyone says I have done narrative ballets but I have never tried to use narrative in a traditional way

My preparation is not steps, not even a story. I listen and listen until the music has become second nature, it has to be in the bloodstream.

The dancers are the second ‘given’ when you work with an established, full-time company. First there is the music, the theme, the place in the programme, which is stipulated when you are first asked, then comes – and this is the most important – the dancers. If they don’t inspire you, then you can’t do it, no matter how prestigious or exciting the project might be.

In a ballet you have a location and people acting in it in real time – 45 minutes in a castle, 45 minutes in a forest, 45 minutes at a wedding.” Whereas in film one event cuts to another and time is not literal.

When I studied film, everything that I loved about it was not verbal, it was the silent films. And when you look at a director like Hitchcock you’ll find that 60 or 70 per cent is purely visual and it’s through the images that the story is told.

She’s a remarkable artist she has such focus and power on stage which gives her a real dramatic hold over an audience. (on Tamara Rojo)

Extract of Reviews and Selected Praise:

Of his Two Footnotes to Ashton, Linbury Studio

Brandstrup’s bucolic Two Footnotes to Ashton is particularly captivating, a frolicsome and erotic footnote to La Fille mal gardée, with Johan Kobborg as a bare-chested, very surprised yokel on whom Alina Cojocaru insistently pounces like a tiny little cat on heat. Everything about this duet is seductive – the recording of Cecilia Bartoli at her most irresistibly honeyed in Gluck’s “Di questa centra in seno”; the way Cojocaru sexily nudges dopey Kobborg with her head and then unleashes lethal vertical arabesques; and the final sweetness of his succumbing, holding her hovering body over his in a delicious anticipation. A total charmer, truly Ashtonian, and surely likely to reappear for the pair on gala occasions. Ismene Brown at the Telegraph [link]

It was Kim Brandstrup who lived up to the evening’s title. His Footnotes was set to ravishing arias (Gluck, Handel), ravishingly sung by Bartoli and Kozena, ravishingly realised (Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg pouring out feeling as a whirlwind of turns and poses; Zenaida Yanowsky grieving wonderfully), and ravishingly made. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

Of Pulcinella, Birmingham Royal Ballet

Cleverly, Brandstrup depicts Pulcinella as a puppet who has somehow slipped his strings, a giddy, quivering creature who alternates between blithe enthusiasm and doleful despair, and who can only just hold on to his spiky, streetwise girlfriend Pimpinella (Ambra Vallo). Some of his best writing is for these comically ill-assorted lovers, especially their wrangling duets in which tiny Vallo seems to batten on to [Robert] Parker’s body, her railing fists and flick-knifing limbs wheeling vociferously around him. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Of Rushes

Acosta is caught in furious, impassioned dialogue with Morera (both artists grandly expressive) while there are appearances by Cojocaru as a compassionate “other” woman. Brandstrup’s writing is fluent, dark in tone for the Acosta/Morera partnership, the couple repeating with each new “rush” aspects of emotional turmoil that we have seen before. Cojocaru seems at first an observer (like the corps de ballet who inhabit the penumbra at the back of the stage). But Brandstrup has shown himself in past works to be an emotional optimist, and the final “rush” is an ecstatic duet for Cojocaru and Acosta which suggests an assertion of possible happiness. Here is a fascinating (and visually very stylish) ballet that will repay further viewings. I hope to return to it, and the rest of this triple bill, after a later performance. Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

In keeping with the theme of Brandstrup’s ballet, all that existed of the music was a couple of dozen fragments, which Michael Berkeley has worked up into an immediately appealing and very danceable whole. Brandstrup picks his collaborators with an unerring eye and ear, and his ballets have a sense of completeness which is quite rare. Jane Simpson review for Dance Now (Vol. 17 No. 2 Summer 2008)

Where to see Kim Brandstrup’s Work:

  • Goldberg – The Brandstrup-Rojo Project – 21 to 26 September at the Linbury Studio
  • New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra – 19/26 Feb 1/2/4 March 2010 – ROH main stage
  • MK Ballerina – 20 May to 5 June – The Royal Danish Theatre
  • MK Danseur Noble – 21 May to 5 June – The Royal Danish Theatre

Videos

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Brandstrup’s Official Website [link]
  2. Biography from Birmingham Royal Ballet website [link]
  3. Biography from GBCM website [link]
  4. New Rojo/Brandstrup work feature by Amanda Holloway. ROH About the House magazine – April 2009
  5. Kim Brandstrup feature by Allen Robertson. ROH About the House magazine – Sept 2007
  6. Performance Notes and Programme for Rushes (2008) including article “Kim Brandstrup” by Judith Mackrell
  7. Kim Brandstrup: Arcing back from the abyss by Nadine Meisner for The Independent [link]
  8. Kim Brandstrup’s Brothers reviewed by Ismene Brown for The Telegraph [link]
  9. Kim Brandstrup’s work listings at Loesje Sanders’ Website [link]
  10. Theorising Brandstrup at Work, a conversation with Susan Melrose and Steffi Sachsenmaier [link]
  11. Claude Debussy – The Fall of the House of Usher · Prélude à la l’après-midi d’un Faune · Jeux (Bregenzer Festspiele 2006) DVD [link]

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Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You love classical ballet complete with fairy tale theme, tiaras, tutus, lavish décors and variations for almost every single dancer featuring every single ballet step. The Sleeping Beauty is also ideal for: classical music fans who want to live Tchaikovsky’s vision of the story, young budding ballerinas and danseurs looking for inspiration and first timers, who will be able to easily follow the story.

Skip If: You cannot bear choreographic “filler”, endless variations and character dances (particularly in the prologue and act 3), long mime sequences (as in the Royal Ballet’s version), happy ever after fairy-tales or overly long ballets – think 3 hours including intervals.

Dream Cast

Aurora: There is currently no better Aurora in our books than Alina Cojocaru.

Prince Désiré/Florimund: Beauty is more centered on the ballerina so the Prince’s role is secondary. However, the male solos are a perfect showcase for  danseur nobles such as Mariinsky’s Igor Kolb, ABT’s Marcelo Gomes, NYCB’s Robbie Fairchild and Roberto Bolle. At the Royal Ballet we think rising star Sergei Polunin (who is tackling the role for the first time this season) and Rupert Pennefather are very princely.

Lilac Fairy: Ulyana Lopatkina, Veronika Part and Marianela Nuñez.

Alina Cojocaru as Aurora in Mariinky's 1890 Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: Ballet-dance.com

Alina Cojocaru as Aurora in Mariinsky's 1890 Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: Ballet-dance.com

Background

In 1888 Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, had the idea of adapting Charles Perrault‘s tale of The Sleeping Beauty into a ballet and invited Tchaikovsky to compose the music. It was a bold move at a time when fairy-tale based ballets were in low public demand and largely viewed as theatrical gimmicks. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (as choreographed by Wenzel Reisinger/Joseph Hansen) had been coldly received and Petipa‘s ballets were not faring well. However visionary Vsevolozhsky, a diplomat who had also served as librettist and costume designer, seeing the potential for Petipa and the talents of the Imperial Theatre,  jumped at the chance to develop a lavish production of this well loved story in the style of those staged in the court of Louis XIV.

Tchaikovsky didn’t hesitate in undertaking the commission. Immediately taking instructions from Petipa as to the particular requirements (e.g. bar lengths, type of music, character leitmotifs, etc.), he worked fast and it is thought that he completed the overture, prologue and outlines of acts I and II in less than three weeks. Tchaikovsky finished the ballet score at the end of May 1889, having spent a total of 40 days on it. In a letter to one of his benefactors he wrote: “The subject is so poetic, so inspirational to composition, that I am captivated by it”.

Rehearsals began in August of that same year. The premiere, originally scheduled to take place that December, kept being pushed forward until the ballet was finally staged on 15th of January 1890. By then the Tsar, who had been invited to the dress rehearsal, had already given it his verdict, laconically telling a puzzled Tchaikovsky that the music was “very nice”.

Vision Scene in Mariinskys The Sleeping Beauty. Source: Mariinsky.ru Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Vision Scene in Mariinsky's The Sleeping Beauty. Source: Mariinsky.ru Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Mixed reviews for the splendid January 15th premiere showed that the audiences had been captivated mostly by the beauty of the music, even if it was constantly referred to as “symphonic”. The libretto was seen as simplistic and juvenile, designs too luxurious (the ballet consumed a quarter of the theatre’s annual budget). Later however, the ballet would captivate the hearts and imagination of a younger generation of enthusiasts. Referred to as the Neva Pickwickians”, personalities such as George Balanchine, Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky and Anna Pavlova, were greatly impressed by the artistic qualities of the production, giving it a boost which helped The Sleeping Beauty become the most performed ballet in the Mariinsky’s history.

This historical 1890 production was revived in 1999, thanks to its reconstruction by Sergey Vikharev who worked with the original notations by Petipa’s assistant Nicholas Sergeyev, as well as other productions which borrowed from it (Perm Ballet’s 1922 production by Fyodor Lopukhov, the Bolshoi‘s by Grigorovich, the Mussorgsky Theatre of Opera and Ballet’s and the Royal Ballet‘s by Sergeyev himself), where necessary filling in the gaps with the Kirov’s 1952 version – the Soviet Beauty – as staged by another Sergeyev: Konstantin Sergeyev.

The Sleeping Beauty was performed outside Russia for the first time in 1896 in Milan. While In St. Petersburg, with the revolution under way, the production went into decline, it flourished in the West thanks to Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Their 1921 staging in London of The Sleeping Princess, in a new full-length version (they also had a 45-min shortened version, Aurora’s Wedding) with designs by Léon Bakst, new orchestrations by Stravinsky and revised choreography by Nijinska had a record 105 consecutive performances and was considered a success even though it had dire economic consequences for the company.

Beauty and the Royal Ballet

The Sleeping Beauty has a special place in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire. It was originally staged for it in 1939 by Nicholas Sergeyev who had fled the Russian revolution with the original Mariinsky notations in his suitcase, with nineteen year old Margot Fonteyn in the role of Aurora. This was also the “statement ballet” chosen by Ninette de Valois to commemorate the end of WWII, as well as her budding ballet company’s new home at the Royal Opera House. Oliver Messel was brought in for the designs and Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann danced the leads Aurora and Prince Florimund/Carabosse. The ballet had its premiere on February 20, of 1946 and became a symbol of the company triumphing against adversity not only at home but on tour in the US, with Fonteyn’s Aurora acclaimed by New York audiences.

Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. Source: Dance Works Online via My Hero.com. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. Source: Dance Works Online via My Hero.com. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The 1946 production was revived by the Royal Ballet in 2006, to celebrate its 75th anniversary and remains in repertoire as their current production. It is also available on DVD.

The Story

Petipa and Vsevolozhsky based their ballet’s libretto on the original fairy tale by Charles Perrault later popularised by the Brothers Grimm. Since the libretto’s priority is to blend the story with the dancing, there are modifications from the source text and, evidently, slight changes from one company’s version to the next.

Prologue: The Christening

The curtains open to reveal the Master of Ceremonies Cattalabutte busy with the final preparations ordered by King Florestan XXIV to celebrate the christening of  his daughter Aurora. He goes through the guest list to make sure he has not forgotten to invite anyone, not least all the fairy godmothers: the Lilac Fairy and

Candide, Coulante-Fleur-de-Farine, Miettes-qui-Tombent, Canari-qui-Chante, Violente or;

Tender Fairy, Carefree Fairy, Generous Fairy, Playful Fairy, Brave Fairy or;

as in the Royal Ballet’s version

Fairy of the Crystal Fountain, Fairy of the Enchanted Garden, Fairy of the Woodland Glade, Fairy of the Song Bird, Fairy of the Golden Vine

who soon arrive to bestow on the Princess gifts and virtues of, respectively, purity, beauty, generosity, musicality and vitality, each dancing a solo representing her trademark virtue. Before the Lilac Fairy has the chance to present her gift (wisdom) she is interrupted by the arrival of Carabosse, the wicked Fairy, furious with the King and Queen for not having been invited. The King calls on Cattalabutte to investigate and his Master of Ceremonies admits Carabosse had been omitted from the guest list. She grabs Cattalabutte and rips off his wig. Ignoring the fairy godmothers’s pleas and ridiculing them, she proceeds to place a curse on the princess, who will grow up to be very beautiful but ultimately prick her finger on a spindle and die on her sixteen birthday. As the court panics the Lilac Fairy, who was yet to give her gift, promises that if Carabosse’s curse ever materializes, then Aurora will not die, but fall into deep sleep for 100 years, awakening once she is found by a Prince from a faraway land who shall give her true love’s kiss.

Royal Ballets Genesia Rosato as Carabosse Source: Opusarte. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The Royal Ballet's Genesia Rosato as Carabosse Source: Opusarte. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Act I: The Spell

It is the eve of Princess Aurora‘s sixteenth birthday and the whole kingdom is celebrating. While villagers dance with flower garlands a small group of women is seen knitting, a forbidden activity which carries a death penalty since the King has banned all sewing objects from his kingdom. Cattalabutte reports them to the King, who decrees that the women should be hanged, but the Queen intervenes and pleads for mercy. Since it is his daughter’s birthday he reconsiders and the festivities resume.

Four princes arrive from far away lands (they are referred to as the French, Spanish, Indian and Russian princes) to meet the princess and offer her gifts of exquisite roses. Aurora’s friends enter and just after that Cattalabutte annouces the Princess’s arrival. As the music becomes as fast as heatbeats, Aurora bursts onto stage dancing quick jumpy steps which convey her youthful innocence. The King and Queen greet her asking her to dance with the princes as she is now old enough to marry. She receives them charmingly and dances what is called the Rose Adagio, one of the most testing pieces for a classical ballerina as she is required to do multiple balances on pointe center stage whilst being courted by each prince, making each of them completely taken with her beauty.

After this technical tour de force, Aurora returns to dance a solo for the princes, which she does in a part coquettish, part bashful way, like a typical teenager. Just then an old lady appears and presents her with a spindle, which she grabs  with curiosity since she had never seen one. She dances with it, while her mother and father watch with a mixture of apprehension and terror as Aurora pricks her finger and collapses. The old lady reveals herself as Carabosse, laughing triumphantly and vanishing before the Princes can fight her. The Lilac Fairy then appears to remind everyone that the Princess will not die. She puts the entire kingdom to sleep, to awaken only once Aurora‘s curse is broken.

Carabosse's curse as depicted in The Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Photo:V&A Images © Source: V&A Collections

Aurora falling under Carabosse's spell in The Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Photo:V&A Images © Source: V&A Collections

Act II: The Vision

One hundred years have passed and Prince Désiré/Florimund is hunting with friends. They try to entertain him with games and dances but he does not seem interested. As his party departs in pursuit of a stag, he lingers behind alone in the forest. The Lilac Fairy appears and shows him a vision of Princess Aurora, and as he dances with this vision he falls in love. He pleads to be brought to the Princess, and the Lilac Fairy takes him to a castle hidden beneath layers of ivy. At the gates they encounter evil Carabosse who tries to prevent the Prince from entering, but the Lilac Fairy repels her and the Prince finally awakens Aurora with a kiss. Désire/Florimund declares his love for her and Aurora agrees to marry him.

Marianela Nuñez as the Lilac Fairy. Source: OpusArte. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Marianela Nuñez as the Lilac Fairy. Source: OpusArte. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Act III: The Wedding

Festivities are held to celebrate the nuptials of Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré/Florimund. Various fairy tale characters join the festivities including Puss in Boots and the White Cat, the Bluebird and Princess Florine, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf among others, the highlight here being the Bluebird Pas de Deux, in which the male soloist has to perform a fiendish diagonal of Brisés volés mirroring a bird in flight. The beautiful grand wedding Pas de Deux ensues, the choreography showing us a more mature Aurora – more poised and confident than the 16 year old from Act I – and her elegant, danseur noble, prince. They are joined by their guests in a mazurka and the ballet ends with the The Lilac Fairy blessing the newly wedded couple.

The Music

Tchaikovksy’s score lasts 3 hours so it is usually cut for the ballet. There are two main leitmotifs, one for Carabosse (the angry sounding first part of the overture) and other for the Lilac Fairy (the calming second part) and both often develop from one another. This review of ABT’s Sleeping Beauty by NY Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay contains some great insights into the musical themes set by Tchaikovsky.

An essential Sleeping Beauty playlist for your ipod should include the below tracks, which are listed as in the original 1890 version. Since track names in the various commercial CD releases might vary (ie. “Grand pas de action: Grand adage à la rose, No 8.” might become “Track 9. Act 1: The Spell. No. 8. Pas d’action”), we have also added the originally corresponding numbers, thus:

Prologue: Overture/Intro (No. 1)
Prologue: Variation La Fée des Lilas–voluptueuse (From the Pas de Six) (No. 3, Variation VI)
Act I Grande Valse Villageoise (The Garland Waltz, No. 6)
Act I Pas d’action: Grand adage à la rose (Rose Adagio No.8)
Act I Scène et Finale (No. 9)
Act II Scène de la chasse royale (No. 10)
Act II Panorama (No. 17)
Act II Scène du Chateau de sommeil (N0. 19)
Act II Scène et Finale. Le réveil d’Aurore (No. 20)
Act III Marche (No. 21)
Act III Polonaise Dansée (No. 22)
Act III Pas de caractère Le Chat Botté et la Chatte Blanche (No. 24)
Act III Pas de deux de l’Oiseau Bleu et la Princesse Florine (No. 25)
Act III Variation de la Princesse Florine (No. 25)
Act III Variation de l’Oiseau Bleu (No. 25)
Act III Pas De Deux. Aurore et Désiré (No. 28)
Act III Coda Générale (No. 30)
Act III Apothéose (No. 30)

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: Marius Petipa
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Original Design: Henrich Levogt (Prologue), Ivan Andreyev (Act 1), Mikhail Bocharov (Acts 1 & 2), Matvey Shishkov (Act 3) with costumes by Ivan Vsevolozhky
Original Cast: Carlotta Brianza as Aurora, Pavel Gerdt as Prince Désiré, Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy, Enrico Cecchetti as the Bluebird and Varvara Nikitina as Princess Florine.
Premiere: St. Petersburg, Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, 15 Jan 1890.

For the Royal Ballet’s current production (the 2006 revival of 1946 production by Ninette de Valois)

Production Credits: Monica Mason and Christopher Newton after Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev with designs by Oliver Messel and Peter Farmer

Choreography: Marius Petipa, with additional choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton (Act II, Aurora’s Variation and Prince’s Variation and Act III: Florestan and his sisters after Petipa), Anthony Dowell (Prologue: Carabosse and Rats and Act III Polonaise and Mazurka assisted by Christopher Carr) and Christopher Wheeldon (Act I: Garland Dance).

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entry for Sleeping Beauty [link]
  2. BalletMet Sleeping Beauty Notes by Gerald Charles [link]
  3. NYCB Sleeping Beauty Notes [link]
  4. Performance Notes and Programme for The Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty (2008) including The Sleeping Beauty by Clement Crisp, A Cinderella Story for a Sleeping Princess by Tim Scholl and The Good, the Bad and the Symphonic by John Warrack.
  5. For Ballet Lovers Only feature on the Reconstructed Beauty by Doug Fullington [link]
  6. The Sleeping Beauty (The Royal Ballet) DVD. Recorded Performance from 2006, featuring Alina Cojocaru as Aurora and Federico Bonelli as Prince Florimund. BBC/Opus Arte, 2008 [link]
  7. The Magic of Sleeping Beauty. Royal Opera House Podcast, presented by Deborah Bull. 2007 [link]
  8. Wake up Princess, the Movies are Calling. Dance review by Alastair Macaulay for the NY Times [link]
  9. CD: Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty London Symphony Orchestra directed by André Previn, 2004. EMI Classics. [link]

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