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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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Kenneth MacMillan, one of the leading choreographers of the twentieth century, is credited with pushing the boundaries of classical ballet and challenging audiences to look beyond the idealised world of fairy tales into the reality and discomfort of their own mortal existence.

With ballets that probed into all extremes of the human condition MacMillan found a deeper way to engage the viewer, to make us empathise with the emotions flowing from his expressive choreography. As part of his 80th anniversary celebrations The Institute of Psychoanalysis and the Royal Academy of Dance are sponsoring a full day symposium which will explore the relationships between physical expression and emotional impact in the choreographer’s work.

Leading MacMillan interpreter Edward Watson, one of the symposium’s participants, has just finished a critically acclaimed run of Mayerling at Covent Garden, dancing the challenging role of Crown Prince Rudolf. We were delighted that Watson agreed to talk to us about the choreographer’s legacy and the way into MacMillan’s complex, yet so very human, characters:

Edward Watson. ROH Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

Edward Watson. Photo: ROH/ Charlotte MacMillan ©

Let’s start with your recent performances as Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. How much physical and emotional commitment does the “toughest of male roles” require and how do you resurface from each performance?

EW: There is no other way to go about it without being totally physically and emotionally committed to it. I don’t you think you can separate them, it’s all one thing. You just get yourself ready to commit musically, emotionally and physically, all of those things, to enter on it, to be believable and credible. In terms of how you feel afterwards…

Because it is such an intense role…

EW: It’s really intense and every show is different, but I never sleep after Mayerling, I am still awake at four in the morning. It’s completely draining, you feel drained after Act II. Actually after Act I you feel like you’ve done three acts already so… it is funny to get yourself ready for it. You don’t want to give yourself out too much at the beginning, otherwise you are not going to have enough energy to the end. In the first act I am always trying to pace myself and, knowing how you are going to feel at the end, you think: why would I do this to myself? But it is an amazing thing to do. I’ve never had any kind of experience like that where you feel you almost lived as someone else for a couple of hours. It’s incredible, a great ballet, it is just amazing.

In addition to Crown Prince Rudolf, Des Grieux and Romeo are all MacMillan classics you have danced a number of times in different places. How have your interpretations of these roles evolved over time?

EW: The biggest change has been with Romeo, because I’ve done it a lot now. Not that I think I wasn’t ready when I first danced it, but Lauren [Cuthbertson] and I weren’t ideally matched and we both knew that, so we relied on our youth to tell the story that way. This is something I have tried to keep. Romeo is a boy and Juliet a girl, they are kids, they are not a prince and a princess. Some people play it like a 20th century classic rather than being clumsy kids which is what they are in a way. The choreography for Romeo is particularly demanding. That I feel I am still trying to get right, to show the youth and abandonment while technically being tight and secure. I’ve now danced Romeo with Lauren, with Mara [Galeazzi] and with Leanne [Benjamin] so you find so many different things with whomever you are responding to or whoever is in front of you.

MacMillan’s characters are typically complex and they demand strong dramatic skills. How important is it to have a like-minded partner? Do you discuss a mutual approach beforehand or is it mainly an act and react dynamic?

EW: Both of those things. Some moments you find something has developed without talking. You are playing something in a certain way, your partner too and it works. When it doesn’t work we tend to discuss. You say, I don’t know what you are doing, what you are thinking or what are you trying to say through the way that you do that step, or is there anything I can help you with, for instance, in the way I lift you. The way into MacMillan is definitely through the steps. It’s not through putting on a face and acting. All is there to be discovered in the choreography. There is so much to be brought out that I don’t think you’ll ever stop finding things in movement. The amazing thing about being a dancer in those ballets is that you will always find something that you haven’t found before. You can connect those steps somehow to your character, to your situation with another character, tiny things like the way you phrase, the way you might stretch something, a look. It is all very physical and thought makes the physical thing happen or sometimes the other way around. It’s a total symbiosis. That was the genius of MacMillan and of the people he worked with when he made these ballets into huge successes: all those elements were exactly right.

So every time one approaches the choreography, there must be new things to be discovered?

EW: Physically everybody is different. I look very different to, say, David Wall [who created the role of Crown Prince Rudolf] or Irek Mukhamedov. So just as they approach steps musically different or physically different, so will I. In classical ballets like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, there are set rules, very obvious rules of what looks right and what doesn’t, but when the choreography really describes character and character situation, there is so much an individual can find to say with a character. It is a dancer’s dream. Of course there are rules, there is set choreography to set music but you can find your way of saying certain things within those rules.

Are there any experiences or specific preparations that have enriched your interpretation of a particular role?

EW: I do a lot of reading. With Romeo I went straight back to the play. Kenneth worked really close to Shakespeare’s play and I know Lynn Seymour [who created the role of Juliet] did. There were a few masterclasses that Tamara [Rojo] and I did with Lynn where she read the text to us and described what he was trying to say at that point. I also read Manon, but it was a ballet I grew up with, watching it as a kid and dancing various parts always.

The most research I did was with Mayerling because Crown Prince Rudolf was a real person and so you have a responsibility to be very honest. I read a lot of books on the subject. Deborah [MacMillan] lent me a book which Kenneth gave her for her birthday which he based the ballet on. She lent me her copy so I could find things that he had underlined in there, things that were really important to him. I also had a weekend in Vienna, I went to visit Mayerling and saw the grave. It fascinated me, this ballet has always fascinated me since I was a kid, from having seen the South Bank documentary originally with Lynn Seymour and David Wall. It is one of those ballets that grow on you. The more you see it, the more you want to see it again. Being in Mayerling had an impact on me because it doesn’t come around that often. It wasn’t in the company for about 8 years while I was here.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan's Mayerling. ROH/ Photo: Johan Persson ©

Did you do any new readings or research this time?

EW: I re-read The Road to Mayerling and when I visited the Mayerling lodge, which is now a convent, I found these weird photocopies outlining the events with dates and times, so I read through that, but I had already done so much before that I knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to change. I wanted the character to build up more this time.

MacMillan revolutionised storytelling in classical ballet, taking it out of its comfort zone, digging deep into human psyche. How relevant are narrative ballets nowadays?

EW: I think people want story-based ballets. It is easier for an audience to want to come to a ballet with a story. Triple bills are harder because of the lack of a linear narrative for a whole evening. Alice in Wonderland is going to be Chris Wheeldon’s next thing [for the Royal Ballet] and I think it is the right time and I hope it is a success.

Having said that, MacMillan’s one-act ballets are what made me, what I grew up in. My first principal role was in My Brother, My Sisters. Those ballets say much about people, feelings and situations, and even Gloria, and Triad, ballets I did when I was younger, there’s so much in them that is not about set characters like Des Grieux, Rudolf and Romeo, but they are still such an amazing experience.

In the past you mentioned that your role in Gloria – one of MacMillan’s most personal ballets – was your favourite…

EW: Did I? I love that ballet, I really love it.

Which is your favorite one-act MacMillan now?

EW: It changes all the time, I have nice memories of all sorts of things but Different Drummer really changed a lot for me. Physically, it really felt like it fitted. I had to work very hard but I understood its physicality, I understood where he was going with it, and in a funny way, it’s the same kind of intense experience as Mayerling, only shorter, but also totally exhausting. It was a wonderful working time for me, Leanne and I were working together a lot and she had worked with Kenneth on the ballet, so she could help me a lot. And Monica Parker who coached us was really enthusiastic as it hadn’t been done for a long time, for about 15 years. It was a ballet people hadn’t seen, that a whole company hadn’t been involved with, so it was really exciting to have the responsibility of bringing it back and making people want to see it. That whole experience probably makes it my favorite one-act.

And your favorite full-length?

EW: Manon and Mayerling are both wonderful. Manon is a ballet that I had always wanted to do since I was a kid, since I was at White Lodge and it ended up being the last big MacMillan role that I debuted in. I love it and Mara is fantastic and I wouldn’t be anything in that ballet without her, it’s really about what she gives me. But more recently, and for the same reasons as above, I should say Mayerling, it is still kind of…it is still lingering on my back!

About the upcoming MacMillan symposium this November, can you give us any insights into what participants may expect?

EW: There will be discussions from psychologists and also from dancers and collaborators who were involved with Kenneth on creating those ballets and, demonstrations from people like me, doing bits of Mayerling. There’s also going to be archive footage, so people can see and discuss the ballets. It will be very interactive, people will be able to ask questions rather than just being presented to. I have a feeling it’s going to be a very interesting day, a real eye opener into what MacMillan is all about.

In your opinion, what is MacMillan’s greatest legacy to ballet?

EW: In my opinion, all of that work. Even those works that are considered failures or that aren’t danced so much these days. It’s so important that someone was constantly pushing classical ballet. It’s classical ballet pushed beyond what you would expect it to, either to tell a story or, like Song of the Earth, telling you everything about life, death and everything in between. No costumes, amazing music, choreography that moves you and you understand somehow through those amazing poems and Mahler’s music that someone can express those feelings to an audience. And that the very same person can tell the most complicated story, like Mayerling, through dance. I find it total genius that someone can do that. No stop and mime, all of those feelings are expressed through choreography.

Song of the Earth is my favourite ballet of all time to watch and the last few times I did it, I loved it. It’s so strange because you are very removed from everyone else. There’s more impact to be made [as the Messenger of Death] by being subtle and just gently there. The poems that inspired Mahler’s songs say “death is like a whisper” and that changed the way I did the role, it’s like a little whisper that’s always there or a feeling, slightly dimmer and you wonder why. It’s little things like that, that you can read and find out. When he was making the ballets MacMillan didn’t always tell people exactly what he wanted them to feel, but it was obviously in his mind, his influences from what he read, from what he heard, all this concerned him.

How transparent then, that even when he did not say it, he could actually find a way to.

EW: Well, that’s the kind of genius he was.


Kenneth MacMillan’s Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium takes place on Sunday, November 8, 2009 from 10am to 8pm at Imperial College London.

This all day event will include a series of set pieces – videos, masterclasses, presentations – interspersed with opportunities for interactive discussion among the participants on stage and members of the audience.

The day will be divided into four separate sections:

MacMillan’s Language – Gesture & Emotion Observed and Expressed

  • Includes videos, presentation and discussion with National Theatre AD Nicholas Hytner and actress/writer Nichola McAuliffe

MacMillan’s Creative Methods – Working with Dancer’s Bodies

  • Includes videos and Mayerling masterclass (Monica Mason with Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson, Iohna Loots and Cindy Jourdain on Mayerling Act 1 Pas de Deux)

MacMillan’s Subject Matter – Breaking the Rules

  • Includes videos, presentations and discussion with FT dance critic Clement Crisp and Manon masterclass (Wayne Eagling with dancers from ENB on Manon Act 1 Pas de Trois)

MacMillan and the Institutions – Creativity in spite of Adversity

  • Film of MacMillan speaking, with comments from Peter Wright, Deborah MacMillan, Clement Crisp. Discussion on the creation of ‘The Judas Tree’ –  with dancers from its original production (Viviana Durante, Michael Nunn and Stephen Wicks)

The event will close with a screening of the complete ballet “The Judas Tree” followed by a social gathering where the audience will have the opportunity to meet and talk with the participants.

Full programme & booking details available from the official website: www.kennethmacmillan80thanniversary.com

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As the season kicks off  Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), one of the UK’s top three ballet companies, celebrates its 20th anniversary as a Birmingham resident. Over the years it has evolved from being the Royal Ballet‘s “touring arm” into shaping its own style: a mix of core repertoire alongside new original full-length narrative ballets, showing a degree of experimentation and risk taking uncommon to big ballet companies. Here we look at the past and present of this unique company:

History

As the name indicates, the Birmingham Royal Ballet is historically linked to the Royal Ballet. They both originated in 1926 when Ninette de Valois founded the Academy of Choreographic Art, her first step towards creating a ballet company with a supporting school. Through Lilian Baylis and her theatres, The Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic, de Valois found a way to give her company a base and by 1931 she had established the Vic-Wells Ballet and Vic-Wells Ballet School at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Moira Shearer in Sadlers Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

Moira Shearer in Sadler's Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

In 1939 both company and school lost the “Vic” tags to better align with their base at Sadler’s Wells, but the subsequent destruction of Sadler’s Theatre during the war dislodged the company and forced it to become a touring troupe known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The end of the war saw the company’s return to the refurbished theatre until its split into two in 1946: the main company and school moving to a new home at the Royal Opera House (eventually becoming the Royal Ballet) and a smaller sister company – the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet –  created to handle touring performances under the supervision of artistic director John Field.

This sister company would later become the Birmingham Royal Ballet but at this point it continued to change and accrue different names. From 1955 to 1977, having left its base at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre to perform in theatres all around the country, it was known as the Royal Ballet Touring Company. A Royal Charter had been granted to recognize the company’s independence and status but it still functioned as a touring “branch” of the Royal Ballet. By 1970 the company had effectively regained its base at Sadler’s Wells so in 1977, with the arrival of Sir Peter Wright as artistic director, it was renamed Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet.

The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet finally became the Birmingham Royal Ballet when it relocated to Birmingham in 1990, following an invitation by the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre and the Birmingham City Council. Peter Wright continued as their Artistic Director until 1995. He was succeeded by choreographer David Bintley, who put his focus into creating an independent company which could be dissociated from the Royal Ballet and in 1997 the BRB finally became independent from the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. Despite this separation, the company still shares a common repertoire with the latter and many of its dancers have emerged from the Royal Ballet School, although the BRB now has its own associated dance academy in the Elmhurst School of Dance.

In addition to performing at home, the BRB regularly visits some of the most important stages around the UK such as the London Coliseum, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Symphony Hall, The Lowry, etc. It also continues to increase its international presence after successful tours around the US, Hong Kong and South Africa.

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRBs The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRB's The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Style and Repertoire

Given their shared origins the BRB style has common elements with the Royal Ballet’s: in their repertoire, with plenty of narrative ballets, and in dancers who are able to emphasize drama and theatricality when performing those. AD David Bintley has furthered the company’s range by continuously creating or commissioning new pieces, with particular focus on the difficult genre of narrative ballet. He has created ten full-length story based ballets (with half of them having been created for BRB and most of them still in repertoire), of which the most successful have captivated audiences and continue to attract  new ones. In contrast, the Royal Ballet’s investment in full-length original commissions has been slimmer, the last one having been Twyla Tharp‘s 1995 A Worldly Wise and the next one, Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, currently announced and planned for the 2011 season.

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintleys Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintley's Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

In an ever more globalized ballet world, BRB seems to be  creating its own history, developing its own character. It has shown to be a daring company which is capable of attracting regular audiences with original works. Instead of bringing predictable classics (e.g. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, etc.) on  tours around the country, they aim to keep a balance with many works by the great 20th century choreographers, such as Ashton, Balanchine, Cranko, de Valois, MacMillan, Robbins and Tudor. With such a pick’n’mix, it is no wonder  their fanbase keeps growing.

The Dancers

Many well known Royal Ballet names began their careers with the BRB: from Nadia Nerina and Lynn Seymour to Darcey Bussell, Miyako Yoshida and Leanne Benjamin.

Through its association with the Elmhulst School of Dance, BRB aims to develop its own talent to feed into the company’s ranks, but plenty of dancers come from other vocational schools such as the Royal Ballet School or internationally, as is the case with Principal dancers Nao Sakuma (Japan), Chi Cao (China), Elisha Willis (Australia), César Morales (Chile) and Ambra Vallo (Italy). Given its continuous flux of new ballets, the company attracts many dancers interested in having roles created on them.

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes in The Nutcracker. Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Videos

Birmingham Royal Ballet has a solid online presence, with plenty of feature and reheasal videos on their website. Here are links to some examples:

  • David Bintley’s Beauty and the Beast with Nao Sakuma as Belle [link]
  • Robert Parker and Elisha Willis in David Bintley’s Cyrano [link]
  • Ashton’s The Two Pigeons Rehearsal with Nao Sakuma and Robert Parker [link]
  • Nao Sakuma rehearses Bintley’s Sylvia [link]
  • Alexander Campbell and Natasha Oughtred rehearse the Nutcracker pas de deux [link]
  • Natasha Oughtred and Joseph Caley rehearse Ashton’s The Dream, under the careful eye of former Royal Ballet Stars,  Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entry for Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]
  2. Step-by-step guide to dance: Birmingham Royal Ballet. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian, April 2009 [link]
  3. David Bintley and the BRB: A Tradition of Niceness by Patricia Boccadoro. Culturekiosque, April 2000 [link]
  4. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Website [link]
  5. Elmhurst and Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]

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