Romeo and Juliet: A History  
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Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ranks alongside Tchaikovsky’s 19th century masterworks Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker as one of ballet’s finest full-length scores. Lush and varied, with extensive leitmotifs and emotional crests and valleys, Prokofiev’s score tracks seamlessly with Shakespeare’s tragedy and is essential to the ballet’s lasting popularity around the world. The achievement is such that it can be difficult to reconcile with the ballet’s troubled history and the censorship Prokofiev faced in Stalinist Russia.
In 1935, Prokofiev accepted a commission from the Kirov Theatre to create a new work and, together with his friends Adrian Piotrovsky and Sergei Radlov, began creating a score and libretto for Romeo and Juliet. The result was musically experimental and featured an unconventional ending in which the star-crossed lovers survive. The initial response from small circles was positive and The Bolshoi Ballet under Vladimir Mutnykh picked it up for their 1936/37 season.
But progressive artists like Prokofiev were kept under close surveillance at the time and liable to be perceived as threats to Soviet ideology. Shortly after Mutnykh signed on, the Committee on Arts Affairs conducted a review of the Bolshoi’s repertoire and, displeased, removed the entire administration and cancelled the season, including Romeo and Juliet. Both Piotrovsky and Mutnykh were arrested and executed as part of Stalin’s Great Purge, a terrifying campaign of political oppression. Prokofiev, treading lightly, chose to present Romeo and Juliet for the first time outside Russia, heavily edited to a single act, in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1938.
The first full-length version of Romeo and Juliet did not appear in Russia until 1940 when the Kirov performed it with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky. The tragic ending was reinstated and Prokofiev made additional changes to the score, though under duress. Lavrovsky restaged it in 1946 for the Bolshoi and, ten years later, Romeo and Juliet toured to London, UK, eliciting a rapturous response. The ballet’s upward trajectory had begun.
Today, the most frequently performed versions of Romeo and Juliet include John Cranko’s 1962 staging for Stuttgart Ballet, which entered The National Ballet of Canada repertoire in 1964, and Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 adaptation for The Royal Ballet. Both are gorgeous, time-honoured works that owe a debt to Lavrovsky.
Given the ubiquity of these earlier versions, it can be a mark of distinction for a top ballet company to have its own adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. In 2011, Artistic Director Karen Kain made this ambition a reality for the National Ballet when she commissioned leading choreographer Alexei Ratmansky to create a brand new Romeo and Juliet in honour of the company’s 60th anniversary season.
Ratmansky, who is passionate about recreating legacy works and a sensitive interpreter of Prokofiev’s music, was an ideal collaborator. His Romeo and Juliet is poetic, richly characterized and full of challenging choreography for today’s athletic dancers. The sets and costumes, by Tony Award-winning designer Richard Hudson, evoke the colours and textures of Verona as though lifted from Renaissance frescoes. Musicality is at its core. As David Briskin, Music Director and Principal Conductor, has said, “This Romeo and Juliet is an historic moment. The greatest modern Russian choreographer is setting a work to the greatest modern Russian ballet score.”
Romeo and Juliet was one of the first large-scale commissions of Kain’s career as Artistic Director and it helped launch the company into a new phase of creative growth and international acclaim. In 2013, the National Ballet toured to London, England for the first time in 26 years with performances of Romeo and Juliet at Sadler’s Wells Theatre and has sustained a schedule of international touring ever since.


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