History of its Creation
William Shakespeare’s story of Romeo and Juliet was one of the first works of literature to inspire ballet choreographer – so perfectly suited to dance are its drama, romance and tragedy.
Since the 1930’s, choreographers have been particularly fortunate to have Sergei Prokofiev’s musical score specifically written for the Ballet.
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It was his intuitive understanding of Shakespeare’s poetry that has left, for generations of Ballet and Music lovers, the greatest full-length Ballet score.
Based on a synopsis created by Adrian Piotrovsky (who first suggested the subject to Prokofiev) and Sergey Radlov, the Ballet in its original form was completed by Prokofiev in September 1935, on commission by the Kirov Ballet.
When he first presented the music to the Bolshoi Ballet that year, they claimed it was “undanceable”.
The original version had a “happy” ending, but was never publicly mounted, partly due to increased fear and caution in the musical and theatrical community in the aftermath of the two notorious Pravda editorials criticising Shostakovich and other “degenerate modernists” including Piotrovsky.
The conductor Yuri Fayer met with Prokofiev frequently during the writing of the music, and he strongly urged the composer to revert to the traditional ending.
Fayer went on to conduct the first performance of the ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre.
Though Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been translated into dance since the early 19th century, it is in the 20th century that productions have been especially prolific.
Suites of the Ballet music were heard in Moscow and the United States, but the full Ballet premiered in the Mahen Theatre, Brno (then in Czechoslovakia, now in the Czech Republic), on 30 December 1938.
It is better known today from the significantly revised version that was first presented at the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad on 11 January 1940, with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky and with Konstantin Sergeyev and Galina Ulanova in the lead roles.
The score and its history have also proven an inspiration to dozens of contemporary choreographers including John Cranko, Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan.
John Cranko’s production of Romeo and Juliet, which entered The National Ballet of Canada’s repertoire in 1964 and became one of the company’s signature productions, has been performed by Ballet Companies all over the world including Miami City Ballet and Vienna State Opera Ballet.
In 1977, Rudolf Nureyev created a new version of Romeo and Juliet for the London Festival Ballet, today’s English National Ballet. He performed the lead role of Romeo, with British ballerina Patricia Ruanne creating the role of Juliet. As a partnership, they would tour the production internationally, and it continues to be a popular Ballet in the ENB repertoire, with its most recent revival in 2010 being staged by Patricia Ruanne and Frederic Jahn, of the original 1977 cast.
On July 4, 2008, with the approval of the Prokofiev family and permission from the Russian State Archive, the original Prokofiev score was given its world premiere.
Musicologist Simon Morrison, author of The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, unearthed the original materials in the Moscow archives, obtained permissions, and reconstructed the entire score.
Mark Morris created the choreography for the production. The Mark Morris Dance Group premiered the work at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in New York State. The production subsequently began a year-long tour to include Berkeley, Norfolk, London, New York, and Chicago.
Romeo and Juliet has become one of the most beloved Ballets and most major companies hold a version in their repertoire.