Three Iconic Productions of the English Ballet School

Three Iconic Productions of the English Ballet School

As a separate branch, the British school emerged in the 1920s. What performances became the milestones of its development?

Marguerite and Armand by Frederick Ashton

The choreographer created this production in 1963 specifically for the Covent Garden ballet pair Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. The ballerina was Ashton's muse for many years, and the exiled soloist of the Leningrad Kirov Theater became a perfect candidate for the role of the ardent lover. 

The Lady of the Camellias, a dramatic play based on the novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas, fils, served as the literary basis, and Franz Liszt's Piano Sonata - as the musical one. The stage action turned out to be compact: the performance is about half an hour long. During this time, the main character, dying of consumption, recalls the brightest moments of her life, including the story of her passionate love. 

Here is what Anna Lazanchina, an art critic, wrote about Ashton's production:


“From the long, action-packed novel-play, Ashton picked the key moments, turning them into dramatic duet scenes...The choreographer presented the entire ballet in the form of monologues and duet scenes, characterized by integral style, but different emotional coloring.”

Right after the premiere, people began to associate the ballet duet of Marguerite and Armand with Fonteyn and Nureyev. During the lifetime of the artists, these parts were not performed by anyone except them. In the recent history of English ballet, the part of Marguerite was performed by Sylvie Guillem. 

Romeo and Juliet by Kenneth MacMillan

The ballet production to the music by Sergei Prokofiev premiered at Covent Garden in 1965. That evening, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev took the stage of the theater. The success was tremendous: the artists received 43 curtain calls! 

MacMillan's ballet was preceded by the balcony scene choreographed for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable a year earlier. Work on the entire production took five months. The choreographer built a story around the two main characters, while set designer Nicholas Georgiadis created a large-scale stage set intended to emphasize the fragility of young lovers in a vast world. It is known that when creating the visual world for the production, MacMillan and Georgiadis were inspired by Italian paintings and architecture. 

In this production, Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography is distinguished by a special emotionality. The sensual duets of Juliet and Romeo and, generally, a notable focus on the main character, who not only performs jumps, but also actively participates in dramatic dialogue, made this performance one of the best ballet adaptations of the famous love story.

The production had a long stage life, and in 2020 MacMillan's performance was even turned into a ballet film. Covent Garden prima ballerina Francesca Hayward recalled this work as follows: 

“MacMillan made the ballet very natural… he moved away from unrealistic moments in the plot, so we are all living people, and this is especially evident on the set.”

The Lady and the Fool by John Cranko

He was called the most successful young choreographer of the Royal Ballet. John Cranko began to receive orders for the first productions at the age of 23. 

He created the one-act ballet The Lady and the Fool in 1954 to the music by Giuseppe Verdi. In terms of genre, the production is close to humorous burlesque performances. The performance tells about the love of a capricious main character and a melancholic clown, who, by the way, was originally danced by choreographer Kenneth MacMillan. The ballet had an acute social connotation: Cranko showed the position of outcasts in English society of that time. 

 Ballet historian Natalia Roslavleva wrote how Cranko was evolving as an original choreographer in her book The English Ballet:

“He is equally good at ensemble and solo dances. Unlike his predecessors, he fills his productions with complex lifts... In his best works, he skillfully uses the motives of English dance folklore.”