Rudolf Nureyev as Hamlet and Lynn Seymour as Ophelia.
Rudolf Nureyev as Hamlet and Lynn Seymour as Ophelia.

Simply impossible

Outrageously irreverent

And the Bard would have squirmed.

Yet, there was one medium that fired the imagination of the mind.


His powerful dialogue in ballet or to simply say, they were danced on stage with equal aplomb as dialogue in drama.

From Shakespearian literature emerged ballet. However spectacular ballet was, it fell short of literary essence found in each and every word the colossal writings yet to be matched by any writer over the past two centuries.

Mighty scores

Without any predecessor, ballet attempts to cover up almost all tragedies of Shakespeare in full-length or as excerpts. They cannot be undertaken in the absence of the mighty scores of Tchaikovsky, Bach, Beethoven and even of the Strauss family of composers. That is how music stepped into replace Shakespeare's dialogue. The dazzling virtuosity, controlled expressions and electrifying charisma of dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Anna Pavlova, Merle Parks, Nijinska, Nijinski, Helpman, etc. have given rise to Bard's characters on stage. They all 'danced' his magnificent words.

It is amazing what goes into something effortless as a ballet or to be more precise, a ballet of virtuosity such as turning a literary-great play of William Shakespeare. Today, all leading choreographers take on such challenges that would have stunned the Bard. His plays were written in specialty of dialogue alone for the scholar and for drama. However, with the emerging decade after decade into centuries, they were boarded as ballets with obstacles and classical music to boost their moral led by such masters like Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev who were responsible in attracting the audiences.

Today, it is a different story where the choreographers are blessed with vibrant stage lighting, amplified or live orchestration in music, technology, camera-tricks ect. They were also helped by the repertories held in ballet companies, in a gallery of a company's dancers and the chronology of ballet's history stored over the years. These aspects moved into magnificent ballets as seen today, with choreographers having access that make ballet more professional. The tutus worn by performing dancers as against the cumbersome formal dresses worn by the yesteryears dancers, shines through today making every movement free and spectacular.

Greatest tragedy

Choreographers moving into Shakespeare drama are an outcome from all these restrictions and freedom to portray such Bard-plays is the dream of every leading dancer around the world. Among his plays, Hamlet is the greatest tragedy and his best story closely followed by Romeo and Juliet while Hamlet and female ones the most sought-after male characters, Juliet and Ophelia are the female ones that choreographers have as priority in ballet. They all are danced by the leading dancers who immortalize them. Lending the fray was Rudolf Nureyev as Romeo and Hamlet while Margot Fonteyn was Juliet, Ophelia by other prominent ballerinas. It was sad that Fonteyn was unable to partner Nureyev's Ophelia.

When Diaghilev died, all his talented people had to look elsewhere around 1929. They were scattered around the world where ballet was thriving. Many of them became teachers in New Zealand, America, Europe while others opted to remain in Europe. Many returned to Russia along with Prokofiev.

But Russia had not developed her ballet because of problems arising from Tsar's regime. However, the strong teaching traditions continued in the country and produced such great dancers like Ulanova and much later, Nureyev who defected to become the world's best dancer to date.

Beyond imagination

In the meantime, Prokofiev toyed with the idea of scoring a suite for Romeo and Juliet and what he came up with is beyond imagination. Even today, choreographers opt for his score in a full length ballet. When the time came to board the ballet in Russia, Prokofiev insisted that Ulanova would be the first to dance the role of Juliet and so it was with the ballet. Fifteen years later in 1956, she took London by storm when an appreciative crowd stood for hours to see her. The Russian version was created by Leonide Lavrovsky and this sumptuous epic was tuned in to a film with equal success.

Galina Ulanova arrived in the guise of Juliet to resurrect her from the grave. For some years John Cranko worked with Kenneth MacMilla to produce this ballet for the Royal Ballet in London with Ulanova herself later to be followed by great stars of the Royal Ballet such as Margot Fonteyn, Seymore, Nureyev, Nijinska, Ashton etc.

Sometimes a great ballet is lost because it can be too subtle to recreate following the original chorographer and too expensive as a full length ballet. Next option is to prune it down to a few Act's but I think in doing so the very essence of a great legend like Romeo and Juliet or for that matter Hamlet, stand the chance of letting down the Shakespearian legacy of great English literature. Unlike in drama where dialogue make up the story value, ballet is helpless for want of expression and depend entirely on movements. Under these circumstances, it is a difficult and complex process of planning performances.

Nevertheless it is the repertory of the ballet that draws dancers from around the world especially when it is a Shakespeare classic. Such stars have to be fast at footwork and lots of movement in the upper body. Dancers' dramatic skills must be very strong and reveal not just dancing steps but a complete part of the story gripping around them. Nureyev for example should shed his personality and be seen as Romeo on stage and not the superstar he is. One must live the role; dance the role to make a ballet like Romeo and Juliet immortal.

The original title was Romeo i Dzhulyetta the ballet in prologue had 3 acts and 13 sense as well as epilogue, directed by Lavrovsky to the music of Prokofiev. It was followed by the Czechoslovakian version in 1938. After reviving for the Bolshoi in 1940 each production achieved better results.

The Covent Garden version was followed by the Stuttgart Ballet and the Royal Sweden Ballet. There is no end for this suite of Romeo and Juliet as it take centre stage in the new millennium. 



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