A New Balletic Take on 'Romeo and Juliet' Hits L.A.

Photo by Bruce Zinger

A new version of the classic dance will find its way to Los Angeles' Music Center for five performances beginning July 10.

The year 1595 was a busy one for William Shakespeare. He had been writing plays for five years and had already enjoyed a string of hits, including Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew, but the decade’s midpoint brought an eclectic collection of titles, including Richard II, the indelible romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the most enduring romance ever written, Romeo and Juliet.

With a story taken from a 1562 poem by Arthur Brooke, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which in turn borrowed from an entry in William Painter’s collection, The Palace of Pleasure, the play has seen countless adaptations on stage, screen, opera and dance in two ballet scores, one by Peter Tchaikovsky and another by Sergei Prokofiev.

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When internationally renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky agreed to make a new ballet based on the Prokofiev score 10 years ago, he, like Shakespeare, was established in his career and widely recognized in his chosen field. After premiering with the National Ballet of Canada in 2011, followed by performances in London, the new version of the classic dance will find its way to Los Angeles’ Music Center for five performances beginning July 10.

Where Shakespeare took a lesser-known poem and made it a touchstone for generations to come, Ratmansky took on a venerable title that had morphed over the years at the hands of great choreographers including Leonid Lavrovsky, who originated the ballet in 1940, and Frederick Ashton, whose 1955 work was made on the Royal Danish Ballet. John Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet version from 1962 has become the most frequently performed in recent years, despite a 1965 version choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan that remains a favorite of London’s Royal Ballet as well as the American Ballet Theater. Ratmansky’s version adds a more modern dance vocabulary while at the same time harking back to some of Prokofiev’s original notes.

“When your public has been watching a version of Romeo and Juliet for 35, 40 years and you replace it with another one, it’s not easy,” National Ballet of Canada director Karen Kain tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It takes a while for them to understand the merits of a whole new take on something.”

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After an enviable career as principal dancer for the National Ballet of Canada, Kain, along with dance partner Frank Augustyn, became a protege of Rudolf Nureyev, appearing with him in numerous productions and forging her own career as guest artist for companies like the Bolshoi and the Paris Opera Ballet, and people like Roland Petit, with whose company, Ballet National du Marseilles, she danced for 10 years before dedicating herself to the National Ballet of Canada. Upon retirement, she settled into a management position there, and in 2005 became artistic director.

“I wanted the version that represents the kind of artist that we have today and the kind of dancers that we have today,” Kain says about commissioning Romeo and Juliet. “I really think the Cranko version represented the great dancers of that time when it was created. And I thought that Alexei was the one I could really imagine doing this.”

Getting him to commit to the production was another story. At the time, Ratmansky was artistic director of the Bolshoi, and his 2001 version of The Nutcracker was fast becoming a Yuletide favorite.  Between 2005, when he agreed to Romeo and Juliet, and its world premiere in 2011, he became the hottest name in classical ballet. In 2008 he became artist in residence at ABT, where he made On the Dnieper, and last year he revisited Shakespeare with a 46-minute Tempest to music by Sibelius.

His take on Romeo and Juliet is a modern one rooted in the fundamentals of classical ballet. “What we see from him is an enormous physicality, this capacity he has with storytelling through physicality,” says Kain. “He tells it through the dancing. It’s very dense in its vocabulary, in its action, in its approach. There’s an extreme density of technical dancing demands, which I think you would only get from a choreographer of today.”

Aside from technical elements, audiences might notice a breathtaking pair of lifts at the end of the ball scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet. Both dancers are raised by their respective parties until they’re floating side by side, drunk with newfound love, and are carried off in opposite directions. The score’s most famous passage, "Dance of the Knights," a bit of bombast over the ball scene, now has a martial maneuver in which the men practice swordplay.

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“It’s a really interesting take, but he took it directly from the score, where it says Dance of the Knights with the swords,” says Kain. “Prokofiev wrote it at the top of the music. For me, it represents the violence that is in the streets and in the land.”

Social and familial contexts take on greater importance in Ratmansky’s version, which is why he resurrected the final notes most often dispensed with when the Montagues and Capulets learn the errors of their way through the tragic loss of their children.

Romeo and Juliet marks the National Ballet of Canada’s first collaboration with Ratmansky, but Kain hopes it won’t be the last. It co-produced The Tempest with ABT, which it will soon present, and while there have been discussions about the future, there is nothing concrete yet.

“I would like Alexei to continue to work with us in any way he wants or can,” says Kain. “I think he has affection for this company, and I think he really enjoyed the process of making this ballet here, and I hope he’ll be open to more work with us in the future.”