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Performing Arts: Ballet

The Many Ballets of Romeo and Juliet

The story of young Romeo and Juliet has been fodder for some of the most beautiful ballet works in existence. While Sergei Prokofiev's music remains the most oft-used score for ballet music, many composers before and after him have also attempted to illustrate the simultaneous beauty and tragedy of the young lovers.

Early Versions

The first known ballet based on Shakespeare's tale, Giulietta e Romeo, was performed in 1785. Using the music of Luigi Marescalchi, Eusebio Luzzi choreographed this 5-act ballet at the Théâtre Samuele in Venice, Italy. Also in Italy, but three years later, Filippo Beretti choreographed a production at La Scala Milan to the music of Vincenzo Martin.

By this time, Shakespeare's play had already inspired various works of art in practically every genre. German composer Daniel Steibelt had published the opera Romeo et Juliette, and it was to Steibelt's music that the popular dancer and mime Ivan Ivanovitch Valberkh choreographed Romeo e Julia, which premiered in St. Petersberg in 1809. In 1811, a version of Romeo and Juliet was choreographed by the renowned dancer Vincenzo Galeotti and composed by Claus Schall. This production, involving pantomime, was performed by the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen.

Innovations

In 1924, French writer and artist Jean Cocteau produced an innovative take on Shakespeare's tale. Not a choreographer, Cocteau set up a series of staged pictures, in which staged hands were incorporated in the "choreography" and professional dancers were described as "mobile parts."

The 1926 production of Romeo and Juliet choreographed by (see below) Bronislav Nijinska with George Balanchine was also an interesting divergence from the original tale. Set to music by English composer Constance Lambert with set designs by Surrealist artists Joan Miró and Max Ernst, this ballet begins with Juliet and other dancers in a rehearsal studio. Romeo, played by Balanchine, enters dressed as an aviator. After a pas de deux, Romeo and Juliet leave the studio via plane. The premiere of the ballet in the Theatre de Monte Carlo was fairly successful. When it opened in Paris, the troupe was greeted by a protest organized by leaders of the Surrealist movement who did not want two prominent Surrealist artists associated with such a capitalist venture. However, the ballet was still a hit with the Parisian audience.

Russian Greats

About a decade later, Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, started to be used for ballet productions, first in ballets choreographed by Birget Bartholin in Paris in 1937, and in the next few years, productions were choreographed by William Christensen and Gyula Haragozó in San Francisco and Hungary, respectively. Although Tchaikovsky's rather short score condenses Shakespeare's play substantially, it is used over and over again in ballets all over the world.

In Czechoslovakia in 1938, yet another version of Romeo and Juliet debuts, this time choreographed by Ivo Vania Psota and set to Sergei Prokofiev's score. This version, which closely follows Shakespeare's original plot, will become the most performed and well-known ballet based on the Bard's tragic romance. For more in-depth information on Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, be sure to check out this description of the score, the ballet, and the composer who made it famous.

New Ballets Set to Older Works

In the 1940's, choreographer Anthony Tudor, although he originally wanted to use Tchaikovsky's music, decided to use the score written by English composer Frederick Delius for a ballet based on Romeo and Juliet. Antal Dorati had arranged Delius's 1907 opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet, for a one-act ballet, and it was this score that Tudor believed was more suited to his vision. Tudor's production, with scenery and costumes by Eugene Berman, premiered at the Ballet Theatre (now the American Ballet Theatre) in New York in 1943. Tudor was known for working particularly slow, so even though the ballet was not completed by the supposed premiere date, an unfinished version of Tudor's Romeo and Juliet was presented to New York audiences on April 6. The ballet debuted in its entirety four days later.

French composer Hector Berlioz had written a dramatic symphony entitled Romeo and Juliet in 1839. After his music was used in a wonderful ballet choreographed by Erich Walter in 1959 in Hamburg, Germany, Maurice Béjart choreographed another version in 1966 in Brussels, Belgium. Similar to Nijinska's 1926 choreography, Béjart's production opens with the dancers on an empty stage as if rehearsing. But unlike any previous production, Béjart himself enters the stage as the Ballet Master and narrates the story of the young lovers. The ballet's plot proceeds similarly to Shakespeare's original plot, except the messenger Queen Mab is used instead of the Montague and Capulet houses. Although the character Mercutio refers to Queen Mab in Act I of the Bard's text, she is not an actual character in the original play.

Russian choreographer Igor Tchernichov also produced a successful performance of Romeo and Juliet set to music by Berlioz. Staged by Elena Tchernichova, this performance premiered in its entirety at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad in 1968. It was performed by the Kirov Ballet and starred Irina Kolpakova and Vadim Gulyayev. In 1969, Tchernichov tried to produce Romeo and Juliet again--this time with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova cast as the leading roles--but the ballet was banned.

Countless other performances and various versions of the theme of Romeo and Juliet have been interpreted through dance. For a more extensive list of ballets, see Ballet Met's selected chronology.

 

Additional Resources:

Romeo and Juliet BalletNotes
http://www.balletmet.org/Notes/
ROMEOAND.HTM

BalletMet's BalletNotes provide an in-depth background on various ballets influenced by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Ballet Timeline
http://www.artslynx.org/dance/
romeo_and_juliet.htm

This timeline shows key events in the evolution of the characters Romeo and Juliet, the play's transformation into performing arts pieces, and information related to composers, choreographers, and performances involved with Romeo and Juliet productions.