Romeo and Juliet: MacMillan's Masterpiece

Analysing Sir Kenneth MacMillan's choreography of Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet' ballet, performed by the Royal Ballet, from a non-dancer's perspective!

Being a professional dancer, choreographer or Prokofiev scholar are unfortunately not among the qualifications I possess. However, as an audience member, the ballet has been a fascination of mine since recorded live performances were only shown over the Christmas holiday season on Sky Arts. I was about 5 or 6 years old when I started this journey, when I believed that the dancers could not speak, and that dancing was the only way they could communicate. In the scenes between dances, especially when the camera zooms in during a recorded performance, I saw the characters ‘communicating’, gesturing and reacting to each other, all without saying a word. This made nothing but perfect sense to my 5-year-old self; “They just understand each other. They just know”. It was totally logical to me that dancing was how they expressed the emotions that clearly couldn’t be vocalised. Upon reflection, this was certain evidence that my logic and existed in creativity. The first time I watched Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet was as a live screening in our local cinema, as I wasn’t able to go to the Opera House to see it. During the 2 intervals, Darcy Bussell was filmed interviewing, among other members of the production, one of the original Romeos, a dancer who worked with MacMillan himself, Donald MacLeary.[1] His insights sparked my curiosity towards dancers’ experiences as performers, rather than simply the characters who I believed to be telepathically communicating with each other. Though this naivety has admittedly stayed with me (and part of me remains perplexed when I see a dancer speaking in an interview), understanding the process of rehearsal deepened my fascination with ballet. 

Fast-forward to July 2020. We are still in the throes of national lockdown, I have somehow completed my Music and Drama degree at home, away from the lively, artistic hub of Manchester that I had adored for 3 years, and ballet is once again keeping my sanity intact. YouTube is allowing us to watch Royal Opera House performances for up to two weeks, and finally, the escape from reality I had been anxiously waiting for, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet was next on the release-list, with Matthew Ball and Yasmin Naghdi in the title roles. I had to write about it.

MacLeary recalled that Kenneth MacMillan didn’t want ballerinas in classical positions; he wanted the movement and positions to be more natural. He explained that the choreography was “based on classical steps, but [with] a lot of invention”. These classical steps are emphasised in Juliet’s dances with her betrothed, Paris. When dancing together, the choreography is very reminiscent of refined classical ballet, showing us the restrictive nature of the relationship between the characters. Everything is perfectly placed, reminding the audience that this relationship is under observation by her parents. Paris’ role in the pairs’ dancing also represents an era of ballet when the male’s role was largely to present the female ballerina, only coming into the limelight when dancing solo. What this does is give us the impression that Juliet is being presented, advertised, at the same time as being completely under the control of her partner. This transforms once she sees Romeo. In every pas de deux, there is much more even display of both dancers, as well as the general choreography appearing infinitely more passionate. This is aided by Juliet’s dress during the balcony scene, as well as their pas de deux in Act III, as the material is much lighter and flows more freely through the air, creating the illusion of romance and a dream-like image. After recoiling from Paris’ kiss, Juliet’s fate is sealed as she comes face-to-face with Romeo, just as the original musical theme of this scene, Dance of the Knights, returns. This is a perfect time to say just how beautifully MacMillan has choreographed the ballet to Prokofiev’s evocative score. In her interview, Darcy Bussell said “the music of Prokofiev is probably a dream come true for any choreographer”, and, though I am not a ballet dancer myself, from an audience member’s perspective, I totally agree. It is the curiously charming, but most importantly “narrative” music that Prokofiev writes, the attention to detail when representing the different characters and their story arches. 

Besides the star-crossed lovers, the role of the corps de ballet is truly special in this performance. In the ‘town square’ scenes, the ballet succeeds in constructing a genuine community on stage. Everybody has an individual role, and an individual character, providing the atmosphere of a truly lively town square, without making the stage look cluttered. Amongst this scene in Act 2, when Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio joke around with the Nurse, it is clear to see a genuine friendship between the three dancers. Hence, the comedy is funnier, the dances are more meaningful, and the story all the more tragic. Take for example Swan Lake, where the comedic relief lies in a single character: the court jester. Though this works for that particular ballet, but in Romeo and Juliet, the comedy comes from the relationships, especially if they are relationships that we the audience can empathise with. It is also in this setting that we are witness to the best sword-fighting I have personally ever seen in a ballet. These scenes are unbelievable, and incomparable to any other ballet in my opinion, purely for the believability and genuine skill and urgency that you feel from the choreography. There is only so much realism you can put into balletic sword fights, but MacMillan succeeds once again. The two male Capulet roles of Lord Capulet and Tybalt were played by the same dancers in both versions I have seen, Gary Avis as Tybalt, and Christopher Saunders as Lord Capulet. Intrigued by what went into these scenes, I found a video of a rehearsal for a different performance of the fight between Romeo and Tybalt, supervised by Saunders.[2] Upon watching this rehearsal, I genuinely admired Saunders’ rehearsal technique, his empathy, and his attention to detail. 

Another special feature of this ballet I had to mention was the balance between movement and stillness. “The audience feel what you’re feeling if you have moments of stillness”, Donald explained. He went on to say that MacMillan encouraged performers to be “more of an actor-dancer”, which is a sentiment I have heard many dancers express in their own interviews when explaining why the ballet is so special to be a part of. He continued, saying dancers had to “use [their] eyes, be still, hear something”, and “if [they] have a script in [their] head, it comes out through the body”. If not, “it becomes passionless and flat”. Ball and Naghdi were individually remarkable performers from a dramatic perspective, and though I credit both dancers on their dramatic talent, I must one final time show my admiration for them as a pair, I can only imagine the challenge to emote in this way without feeling a deep connection with one’s partner. It makes the entire 500-year-old play move a new and young 21st century public. 

A fixation with technique alone wouldn’t suffice. Not for MacMillan’s ‘star-crossed lovers’, and the Royal Ballet does it to perfection. I only hope that theatres will soon reopen so I can finally watch this masterpiece in the Royal Opera House one day.


Rosalie Amos

Rosalie Amos

Music and Drama graduate from the University of Manchester.

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  • Ophelia Appleby

    On 19 February 2021, 16:38 Ophelia Appleby Kickstart Team commented:

    This has made me super excited to go and see more ballet when we're once again free to do so - I only started going to see ballet in 2019 and I can't believe I waited so long!

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