Romeo and Juliet
The Heartache of Doomed Love
Romeo and Juliet,
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan
Music by Sergey Prokofiev
In Romeo and Juliet
, we see a pair of pas de deux
, (pronounced (PAH-d’-DUEH), performances in which unfulfilled promises and deceit are replaced by young love and the fear of loss. Arguably as popular as Swan Lake
, many versions of this ballet have been created by various choreographers. In 1965, Kenneth MacMillan choreographed a version of Romeo and Juliet
that has become popular with many ballet companies and is commonly staged today.
Straight from the pen of William Shakespeare, the storyline is a familiar one. Romeo and Juliet fall in love despite being from families that are sworn enemies of one another. They marry secretly, but after they wed Romeo gets caught up in marketplace brawl between the feuding families. Romeo ends up killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt to avenge the death of his friend Mercutio. He flees after saying goodbye to Juliet. She feigns death by drinking a potion so she can be free to follow him. Romeo, unaware of her plan, hears she has died and returns to mourn her. Unable to bear his grief, he kills himself. Juliet awakens, realizes what has happened, and commits suicide so they may be reunited in death.
MacMillan’s version explores the emotional aspects of the story. In contrast with earlier, more formal versions of the ballet, MacMillan is unafraid to portray the raw intensity of the lover’s plight. At one point, an anguished Juliet is dragged forward by Romeo on the floor. In another, Romeo and Juliet openly kiss each other to display their passion. MacMillan’s approach is a departure from ballet’s traditional code of conduct going back to the formal environment of the French royal court and Russian imperial court where ballet developed. A more traditional ballet would have had Romeo and Juliet exchange loving caresses, rather than an impassioned kiss. The “Love Dance”
The first pas de deux in the ballet happens after Romeo and Juliet are attracted to one another at a costume ball thrown by Juliet’s family. Juliet retires to her room, and stands on her balcony lost in thought.
Romeo steals in below the balcony wearing a cloak. The two lovers fix their eyes on one another, and remain still while the music builds and swells. Juliet, transfixed by Romeo, descends the balcony stairs. Romeo shows off in a solo variation full of big leaps, and then Juliet joins him for their pas de deux, which Prokofiev calls the “Love Dance.”
At first shy with one another, the couple swirls together, caught up in the excitement of their blooming love. Set to sweeping music they move with fluidity through pirouette turns, embraces, and high and low lifts. In a tender moment, Romeo caresses the hem of Juliet’s nightgown. He kneels with open arms, and Juliet rushes to him, caught in an arched position with her arms gracefully reaching upward. She repeatedly falls toward him, one leg extended and lifted upward as he pulls her close. The pas de deux ends with a passionate kiss. Juliet returns to her balcony, and the two lovers reach for one another across the distance between them. The Pas de Deux
The second duet, considered the main pas de deux of the ballet, occurs under entirely different circumstances. Events have transpired that make this duet a sorrowful parting instead of a celebration, even though the couple has just wed. The lovers are forced to separate. Romeo must flee since he has killed Juliet’s cousin.
The duet begins in Juliet’s bedroom after the couple wakes up. They rest their heads on each other’s shoulders. It is immediately apparent they are more familiar with one another now—there is no awkward shyness in this duet. Juliet’s head is repeatedly cast down, shielding her face from our view, giving the duet a somber tone. She flings her arms around Romeo’s neck as if trying to keep him from leaving, only to run away from him in unhappy desperation. He reassures her through partnered lifts and balances.
In a move reminiscent of the “Love Duet” a seated Romeo catches Juliet as she falls forward with her extended leg lifted upward, only this time she releases all the way to the floor, giving in to her desperation, and he must drag her to him. The music becomes frantic. Juliet covers Romeo with hysterical quick kisses until he grabs her hands to make her stop, and then kisses her lips passionately. Romeo leaves and Juliet stands transfixed, as she did in the balcony scene, but full of heartache instead of anticipation.
Not Everything is Black and White
Swan Lake, 1877
Choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky
In Petipa’s ballet Swan Lake, there are two pas de deux, (pronounced (PAH-d’-DUEH). The “Love Duet” is danced between Prince Siegfried and his beloved Odette, the Swan Queen. The other, the “Black Swan Pas de Deux,” is danced between the prince and Odile, a woman in disguise who tricks the prince into thinking she is his betrothed, destroying his future with the Swan Queen.
The “Love Duet”
Odette is a beautiful creature controlled by a sorcerer named Baron von Rothbart, who turned her into the Swan Queen. Both bird and woman, she is only allowed to take human form between midnight and daybreak. Upon seeing her when out on a hunting expedition, Prince Siegfried is entranced by her beauty. The pas de deux between them chronicles the transition from Odette’s initial fear of Siegfried to her acceptance of his love.
Odette is terrified of Siegfried at the start. Her whole body trembles, her arms press against her chest as if in self-protection, and she backs away, moving in toe shoes that jab into the ground. The prince begs her not to fly away. They dance together, and while he supports her and lifts her high overhead, Odette seems like she might take flight. In the end, Odette lets go of her fear and gives in to feelings of hope and devotion. If Siegfried fulfills his promise to love, marry, and be faithful to her, she will be free of von Rothbart’s curse. Odette sways gently in Siegfried’s arms, and as he turns her around slowly with his finger, her foot flutters against her ankle, like a heartbeat quieting.
The “Black Swan Pas de Deux”
In contrast to the “Love Duet,” the “Black Swan Pas de Deux” is not about fear, tenderness, or even love. Determined to keep Odette under his control, von Rothbart disguises his daughter Odile in black and presents her to the prince at his birthday ball. The prince, thinking his Swan Queen has appeared, is full of excitement and desire. The dance between Odile and the prince is brighter and flashier than his dance with Odette. Odile is full of confidence instead of timidity. She appears one step ahead of the prince, like she is leading him on. She is simultaneously supported by him yet independent.
Odile’s dancing is as skillful as Odette’s (in fact, the same dancer performs both parts), but is more calculated. Her final pose is a triumphant one, with her arms and head thrown back, as if she might laugh. She knows she has successfully deceived the prince. He swears his love for Odile and, in so doing, dooms the Swan Queen to death.
No Story Needed
Choreography by George Balanchine
Music by Igor Stravinsky
The two pas de deux
, (pronounced (PAH-d’-DUEH), already described are from story ballets. But what about dancing that follows no narrative? The 1957 production Agon
, choreographed by George Balanchine to music by Igor Stravinsky, is a non-story ballet. It, too, has a pas de deux, as well as sections for four, eight and all 12 dancers. The entire work is 20 minutes in length.
According to Robert Greskovic in his book Ballet 101, the pas de deux in non-story ballets is often seen as a love story, despite the lack of a clear narrative. In Agon
, a romantic relationship between the two dancers is one possible interpretation, but again, as we have seen in previous examples, the pas de deux isn’t just about love. It is far more complex than that.
In the ballet’s premiere, Balanchine cast a black male dancer named Arthur Mitchell and a white ballerina named Diana Adams for the pas de deux. In 1957, this was a bold choice. Why did he do it?
There is no question Balanchine wanted to showcase African American dancers—he hired black ballet dancers immediately after establishing the New York City Ballet in 1948. Perhaps his casting choice was a progressive statement pushing for equal representation on stage. Another possibility is that Balanchine was interested in a visual portrayal of what composer Igor Stravinsky had achieved for the first time with his music.
Stravinsky created the score for Agon
using the atonal 12-tone technique, meaning that he placed equal importance on both the white and black keys of the piano when creating the work. Besides choosing black and white dancers for the pas de deux, Balanchine mirrored Stravinsky’s compositional effort by including a total of 12 dancers in Agon
. These factors, and the title Agon
, which means debate, conflict, or contest in Greek, ensure that the pas de deux will be viewed as more than a simple love duet. No Simple Answers
At one point in the pas de deux, the male danseur kneels in front of the ballerina. She extends her leg above his head and then brings it down to rest upon his shoulder, as if she is a queen swearing her loyal subject into knighthood with a sword. He rises, with her leg still on his shoulder. Now up on her toes, the ballerina rotates slowly around until her back faces her partner, with her leg extended behind her, still on his shoulder. The ballerina is like clay in his hands, arching her head back to almost touch her lifted foot.
The relationship between the two changes throughout the duet and is hard to pinpoint. It is certainly not a traditional pas de deux, even though it has the formal structure of the grand pas d’ action
with individual variations for each dancer and a final coda. Alastair Macaulay, a writer for the New York Times discusses Agon
in an article commemorating its 50th birthday and wonders: “Are they lovers? Sovereign and vassal? Muse and poet? Sculpture and sculptor?”
Whatever relationship the partners have, it is clear that this groundbreaking work presents a pas de deux that is much is more than a love duet. As we have seen in the examples above from Swan Lake
and Romeo and Juliet
, the pas de deux is so much more than a love dance. It is the coming together of two people who carry with them all kinds of intense emotions, including love, grief, fear, deceit, joy, and longing. Even without a story to help us understand what we are watching, the pas de deux is a fascinating window into the complexity of feelings that can arise when two people interact with one another intimately.