The Great "Non-Dance" Ballet

The Great "Non-Dance" Ballet

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular ballets in the world. It's hard to imagine, but only 80 years ago, it was considered innovative and had many obstacles on the way to the audience.

No happy endings

In the 1930s, Sergei Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union after 17 years of work and touring abroad, being already an accomplished world-renowned composer. However, in the USSR he had yet to earn recognition, so he resolutely took up the task of writing the Romeo and Juliet ballet for the Kirov Theater in Leningrad (now the Mariinsky Theater). At that time, almost nobody staged ballets based on big literary works as it was difficult to imagine how you could tell the audience such a huge detailed story without words, using just music and choreography. However, the difficult task became a professional challenge for the composer.

Director Sergei Radlov and playwright Adrian Piotrovsky agreed to write the libretto. In their first version, the lovers stayed alive. In 1935, the theater management approved Prokofiev’s music, but ordered to bring the libretto finale closer to the original. 

However, correction of the plot liberties didn’t help the production to be released - obstacles poured down one after another. Previously approved music was recognized as "non-dance" and the premiere was canceled. 

Such a sharp change in moods was largely due to the devastating critical articles published in the newspaper Pravda on Shostakovich's music to the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and the ballet The Bright Stream, the libretto of which was written by Piotrovsky too. The first publication was called Muddle Instead of Music, the second - Ballet Falsehood.

Second chance

The order for this ballet was passed on to the Bolshoi Theater, after auditioning, they didn’t give the green light to the performance either. There was an idea to show the ballet at the anniversary of the Leningrad Choreographic College (now the Vaganova Academy). 

In 1936, choreographer Mikhail Lavrovsky joined the team working on the production. The choreographer often argued with the composer about the score, trying to adapt the music to the laws of dance. 

In 1937, Adrian Piotrovsky was executed, and his name was quickly removed from the list of co-authors. 

Every year until 1940, the ballet was "sent to gather dust on the shelf" in the USSR. Finally, the Soviet premiere was overtaken by the Czechoslovak one, which took place at the end of 1938. At that time, suites from Romeo and Juliet were already well known abroad, as they were included in the foreign version. In Czechoslovakia, the premiere was a great success, and the Soviet audience first saw Romeo and Juliet only in 1940 on stage of the Kirov Theater in Leningrad. 

The final stages of work on the performance was especially intense: artists refused to dance to "non-dance" music, musicians were afraid they would fail to cope with the score, although Lavrovsky changed it significantly despite Prokofiev's objections. There was a catch phrase in the theater then: “Never was a story of more woe than this of Prokofiev’s music in ballet". Many believe that its author was the star ballerina Galina Ulanova who performed the role of Juliet in the production.

Well-deserved success

Despite the thorny 5-year path of creation, the ballet was appreciated - it received the Stalin Prize; in 1946, it was included in the repertoire of the Bolshoi Theater; and in 1955, its abridged film version was released. 

To choreograph Prokofiev's outstanding but complicated music, you need to be a great master of your craft. The ballet Romeo and Juliet in the track record of choreographers and dancers is a sign of their highest professional level. The ballet was staged by John Cranko in 1962, Kenneth Macmillan in 1965, John Neumeier in 1971, Rudolf Nureyev in 1972, Angelin Preljocaj in 1990. 

At the Bolshoi Theater, they dance this Shakespeare's tragedy in two versions - directed by Yuri Grigorovich and by Alexei Ratmansky. The audience saw the first production by Grigorovich in 1978 on the stage of the Paris Opera. In 1979, the choreographer, together with the set designer Simon Virsaladze, radically changed the performance to be premiered at the Bolshoi Theater. If in the first performance black tragic color prevailed, in the second version Verona turned out to be more colorful. Grigorovich then managed to add the missing pieces of Prokofiev's music, which he found in the rejected 1936 score. The choreographer was introducing changes to his performance on a regular basis. 

Romeo and Juliet by Ratmansky premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in 2017. The choreographer broke down the "heavy" scenes set by Prokofiev's music into ensembles. His Verona inhabitants appear to be very natural, and the performance got rid of its traditional pathos. 

The original idea of the libretto authors was also implemented at last: in 2008, the 1935 ballet version with a happy ending was recreated by choreographer Mark Morris as part of the Bard Music Festival.