One of the most compelling sources for narrative ballet is William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. The best known approach to this familiar story originated in the Soviet Union, utilizing a full-evening score composed by Sergei Prokofiev, which became his Opus 64. The choreography itself did not come quite so easily, primarily due to arguments among Soviet cultural officials and representatives of both the Kirov Ballet and the Bolshoi Theatre. (For example, the first scenario for the choreography had a happy ending, an idea that, fortunately, was rejected, but not without considerable argument.)
While Prokofiev composed his score in 1935, the first full performance (with fidelity to Shakespeare honored) took place in Leningrad on January 10, 1940 at the Kirov Theatre (which is now called that Mariinsky Theatre). The choreography was by Leonid Lavrovsky, who imposed significant changes to Prokofiev’s score but maintained the overall framework. Since then there are been a variety of different choreographic settings of Prokofiev’s music (with a variety of degrees of fidelity to the way he wrote it).
The best-known of those settings enjoyed the benefit of historical significance. In 1965 Kenneth MacMillan created a version for the Royal Ballet that was about as faithful to Prokofiev as one might expect. The role of Romeo was created for Rudolf Nureyev, who had defected from the Soviet Union in 1961. His partner would be Margot Fonteyn. Many thought that Fonteyn was ready for retirement, but her work with Nureyev seemed to rejuvenate her. The two would go on to dance together in other ballets. There have been any number of subsequent choreographic interpretations of Shakespeare’s play since then. I was particularly intrigued when John Neumeier (I think) decided to present the entire narrative from Friar Laurence’s point of view.
However, many (including myself) still tend to view the MacMillan version as the “gold standard” of choreographic settings of Romeo and Juliet. This is due, in part, to the excellent film made by Paul Czinner that documents the Royal Ballet performance with Fonteyn and Nureyev, which is still available in DVD format. This year Michael Nunn and William Trevitt created a film based on MacMillan’s choreography, conceived cinematically, rather than as a “document” of a staged performance. Both Nunn and Trevitt previously danced with the Royal Ballet and then went on to found their own company (presumably named after themselves), Ballet Boyz.
The outcome, which will be presented as part of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival (SFDFF), is definitely a significant achievement in film-making. Nevertheless, from the perspective of one that has seen the MacMillan version performed by the Royal Ballet on stage (as well as in Czinner’s film), the result has both assets and liabilities. On the basis of my first encounter with this film, I have to say that I am not yet sure which of the two balance pans will ultimately prevail.
William Bracewell’s Romeo bids his final farewell to Francesca Hayward’s Juliet in the Romeo and Juliet film by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt (from the SFDFF film description Web page)
Let us begin with the most obvious asset. Even the most passionate admirers of Fonteyn (and I like to think that I am one of them) had to admit that seeing her as the thirteen-year-old Juliet Capulet was a real test of the willing suspension of disbelief. In the Nunn-Trevitt film Francesca Hayward is a much better fit for Juliet’s youthful character. (Mind you, Hayward has ascended to the level of Principal Ballerina, which is not a height achieved by teenagers!) Her character also makes for a much better fit for William Bracewell’s equally youthful Romeo. I would like nothing better than to see them dance MacMillan’s choreography on the stage.
I would also say that Nunn and Trevitt fine-tuned some of MacMillan’s choreography to lend a bit more dramatic insight into some of the other characters. Tybalt is particularly more “three-dimensional” than he tends to be portrayed, even in stagings of Shakespeare’s play. The suggestion that he is drunk when he goes into the public square at the end of the second act itching to fight with Montagues may have been a bit of a stretch (particularly in light of the quality of his swordsmanship); but it provides a bit more motivation than we usually get. Similarly, there is more of a sense of Paris’ failure to grasp that he has been thrust into a situation behind his control.
On the other hand I have to say that I still have a lot of trouble with Lady Capulet’s tantrum over Tybalt’s body. The decision for Nunn and Trevitt to set this in a downpour tends to cheapen that moment, rather than trying to endow it with any depth. However, while I appreciate efforts to open up the action beyond the confines of the stage, I have to say that I take issue with the menagerie that this broader view affords.
This begins with the chickens in the opening scene; but, ultimately, it is the dog(s) that steal the show. (In explanation of that parenthesis, I am sure I saw two of them in one transitional scene.) Unfortunately, they make for some rather overt inconsistencies in the final edit. From one angle the dog is lying quietly under the table. In the next shot it is standing on all fours; and these spontaneous alternations continue (and distract) throughout most of the Capulet ball scene. The handling of Cerberus in the Seal Team television series is much better conceived and executed when it comes to maintaining focus on the narrative!
To be fair, my memories of the “original version” MacMillan (on both stage and screen) are so strong that it is hard for me to avoid picking nits. What Nunn and Trevitt have created is very much their own object, taking MacMillan as a point of departure. At the end of the day, however, my personal preference goes for past memories rather than a new Interpretative point of view.
The screening of the Nunn-Trevitt film will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, November 6. The program will begin with two short films featuring Principal Dancers from the Royal Ballet, “In Her Hands” and “Nela.” It will be held at the Lucasfilm Premiere Theater at 1110 Gorgas Avenue, a short walk into The Presidio from the Lombard Street entrance. Individual ticket prices will be $13 and $17. Both single tickets and festival passes may be purchased through hyperlinks on the event page for this film.