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`Romeo' through the ages. (Attitudes).

WITH APOLOGIES TO SHAKESPEARE, LET'S TRANSLATE JULIET'S FAMOUS QUESTION, "WHEREFORE ART THOU ROMEO?" INTO SOMETHING MORE INTELLIGIBLE (IF LESS POETIC): "WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE Romeo, and a Montague?" There must be more than a few ballet lovers who look at a repertoire schedule and mutter, "Why does it have to be another Romeo?" But strangely, during the whole of the twentieth century the only two ballet scores that have established themselves with choreographers and the general public are Serge Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and his later ballet, Cinderella.

The why is easily enough found. Partly it is because these two scores are readily accessible and beautifully danceable, to a dual extent that no rival score can match--not since Tchaikovsky! But perhaps more important, both Romeo and Cinderella have name recognition and well-developed narratives, and they offer unforced opportunities for both dramatic and display dancing.

Not surprisingly, ballet versions of Romeo and Juliet are almost as old as Shakespeare's play. Well, not quite--but they do date from the late eighteenth century. In the twentieth century quite a few capsule versions, by Serge Lifar and George Skibine for example, were set to Tchaikovsky's well-known fantasy overture, while Antony Tudor turned to a mishmash score taken from Frederick Delius. But, after its initial cool reception, it has been Prokofiev's score that has held the stage. No wonder: It has a sweep and magnificence, a symphonic scale, and a measure of danceability that ranks with Tchaikovsky himself.

Of the many versions, the first Russian production was staged in St. Petersburg in 1940, with choreograiphy by Leonid Lavrovsky, certain staging by the theater director Sergei Radlov, and a cast led by Galina Ulanova and Konstantin Sergeyev as the star-cross'd lovers. It was mounted in 1946 by Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, which first brought it to the West ten years later. This has been the standard version that most other productions have, as it were, bounced against. Only one major staging, Frederick Ashton's sweetly English and classic maverick version for the Danes in 1955, has been conceived without prior awareness of the Lavrovsky/Radlov masterpiece, which proved to be the unexpected pinnacle of the old Fokinean concept of dance drama.

In Western Europe new versions, such as John Cranko's revised Stuttgart production in 1962 (perhaps the best of them all) and Kenneth MacMillan's stylistically similar Royal Ballet version three years later, seemed to be able to absorb the Lavrovsky yet reevaluate the dance content while retaining much of the Russian's dramatic power. The reaction in Russia itself to Lavrovsky's monolithic balletic monument was sharply and interestingly diverse. New Russian choreographers, despite their respect for the original, seemed almost to move their versions toward the abstract in reaction against Lavrovsky.

In this respect the most downright revolutionary were Yuri Grigorovich's production for his Bolshoi Ballet in 1979 and, even more abstract, Valery Panov's remarkable but unfortunately little-known Romeo for the Royal Ballet of Flanders in 1984. However, the first Russian choreographer to move towards a more danceintensive use of the Prokofiev was the former Kirov director Oleg Vinogradov. In 1965, very early in his career, he was temporarily banished to the Novosibirsk Ballet in Siberia, where he made his first Romeo and Juliet. Since that first attempt, which I recall with affection, I had not seen any of Vinogradov's eight later versions, including his one for the Kirov. It was therefore with considerable interest that I accepted an invitation in July 2002 to go to a soccer-crazed Seoul (Vinogradov's Universal Ballet was vying with the World Cup!) to see his tenth and latest Romeo and Juliet.

Yes, it does have things in common with his first take on the score some thirty-seven years ago, and it remains an opposition piece to the dance-drama approach of Lavrovsky and, to an extent, even Cranko. On the other hand, Vinogradov certainly doesn't see it as a Petipa-style ballet in the classically refined manner of Ashton. But although the move to pure dance is less marked than in the Grigorovich or Panov stagings, this is unquestionably a danced-out Romeo.

The scenario--and Shakespeare's play--are markedly changed to accommodate this energized dance element. For example, an ensemble of four young men and four young women has replaced Benvolio and the Nurse. A commedia dell'arte sketch is provided in the town square, and at the end there is a kind of apotheosis in which lovers from our own times (dancers in plain, modern leotards) pay homage at Juliet's tomb and then walk through the audience. The score has also been slightly rearranged--the ballet opens with a tableau set to Renaissance lute music, while the third-act tarantella is moved into the first act.

It is a good, thoughtful, at times provocative version, which gives the dancers of this predominantly young Korean company the opportunity to act as well as dance--a major consideration in building up a new repertoire. It also looks gorgeous with its versatile setting of fourtiered palazzo arches by Simon Pastukh and fantasticated Renaissance costumes by Galina Solovyeva.

It is amazing how well this old score supports so many diverse realizations, all balanced on that knife edge between dance and drama. And that knife edge is surely the reason the ballet holds such fascination for choreographers. Here is their manifold answer to Juliet's question. Wherefore? Because it seems an unending challenge.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to Dance Magazine since 1956.
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Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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