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IS NUREYEV'S ROMEO AND JULIET THE BEST VERSION?

 

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 13 JUNE 2011 — All too often, Rudolf Nureyev has been described as being a producer of ballets rather than a choreographer in his own right and it has been quite fashionable, particularly among the Anglo-Saxon press and certain biographers, to criticize his works, erroneously to the majority of us. Time and time again we hear unadulterated praise given to John Cranko’s 1958 staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy, now somewhat dated, while those nostalgic for the golden years of Covent Garden, sigh with longing over Kenneth MacMillan’s version of Romeo and Juliet, created some seven years later and immortalized on film with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

In 1977, the same year the great Russian dancer left Covent Garden, where he was never a member of the company but merely guest artist, he mounted his own version of the work, a ballet he reworked for the Paris Opera in 1984. He produced a large-scale cinema-like fresco bursting with life, colour, and passion, a work set against the magnificent golden palaces and sun-drenched squares of Renaissance Verona. It is a super-production with opulent scenery and costumes by Ezio Frigerio aided by Mauro Pagano, and packed with exciting and dramatic dancing for the ensembles, pas de trois, and pas de deux, as well as a refined and elegant pas de quatre performed by Juliet, her parents, and Paris. The choreography, which is highly expressive, always allows Prokofiev’s limpid and vivid score to dictate the course of the action as if telling each dancer what to do whilst at the same time, allowing them the freedom of interpretation. No two dancers give the same performance.


Nureyev: Romeo and Juliet
Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris
Photo: Julien Bernhamou

As Nureyev himself said, his version, directly inspired by Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film and yet which remains so close to William Shakespeare that one is almost turning over the pages of the play, tells the story of an immature boy who turns into a man upon meeting Juliet. And while Juliet remains the dominating motivator of the tragedy, Nureyev carefully built up the differing personalities of Tybalt, Mercutio, Benvolio, Rosaline and Paris, who all emerge as characters in their own right within the violent brawls of members of the Capulet and Montague clans in the market-place. Charles Jude also told me that Nureyev saw and greatly admired Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story.

Possibly the greatest ‘criticism’ of Nureyev’s ballets is the very high technical as well as artistic level that they demand from the dancers. It is why the original cast of Monique Loudières and Patrick Dupond left memories behind of all who saw them, and why such important artists as Nicolas le Riche, Manuel Legris and Elisabeth Maurin have also left their stamp on the central roles. Charles Jude marked the role of Tybalt, and not until now has another interpretation of Juliet’s cousin, that of Stéphane Bullion, equalled his, in part due to the superb level  of all the cast. It is extremely rare to see outstanding performances from every member of a cast which was the case on 28 April  at the Opéra Bastille.


Nureyev: Romeo and Juliet
Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris
Photo: Julien Bernhamou

All praise has first to be given to the sublime dancing and interpretation of Laetitia Pujol, a truly great dramatic dancer. She was a beguilingly young Juliet, a worthy successor to both Monique Loudières and Galina Ulanova, a small, willful, fourteen year-old girl fighting against the social restrictions imposed upon her. There was no hesitation in her rejection  of Paris, a fad and foppish young person, puppet of the Capulet family, admirably portrayed by the stiff-legged, aristocratic Bruno Bouché, who seemed to be suffering from a bad smell under his nose for most of the performance.

Indeed, Juliet’s reluctance to approach him gave even more credibility to her sudden passion for the handsome and gentle Romeo, a role in gold for Mathieu Ganio. This was indeed love at first sight for the two adolescents, who also looked the age of their roles. Gone was Romeo’s momentary infatuation for the worldly but exquisite Rosaline, danced with grace by Myriam Ould- Braham, première dancer today, star of tomorrow.


Nureyev: Romeo and Juliet
Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris
Photo: Julien Bernhamou

Ganio, in contrast to the mischievous interpretation of Dupond, creator of the role at the Palais Garnier in 1984,  and bypassing the boyish attraction given to Romeo by le Riche, chose to define his Romeo as more noble, a dreamy and poetic boy ready to follow his Juliet to the ends of the earth.  He and Pujol took every risk possible in their two pas de deux, pushed to their limits with the sweeping leaps and heart-stopping lifts, and were yet tender, lyrical and very much in love. Each member of the audience was so emotionally involved that no one was aware of the inherent dangers of the choreography until long after the performance.

But this was not simply a performance from two big French stars. The complicity between Benvolio, Mercutio and Romeo was such that one could not tear one’s eyes away from the stage the moment the three of them appeared. Christophe Duquenne was the sort of Benvolio we should all love to have as a friend. His dancing was superb and  his partnering outstanding, allowing Ganio to perform the most amazing backward leaps in the expression of his anguish after hearing of Juliet’s death, while Mathias Heymann as Mercutio let rip his own spontaneous sense of fun. Rarely has an audience laughed so much at his antics with Juliet’s nurse, or at his careless, nonchalant humour during the swordfights with the enraged Tybalt. He was fresh, innocent, spirited and lovable, while at the same time stunning the audience with his high elevation and neat, precise footwork. And perhaps the most astonishing fact of all was that none of these young dancers had ever worked with Nureyev, let alone seen him dance.


Nureyev: Romeo and Juliet
Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris
Photo: Julien Bernhamou

In each and every direction, there was an utter trust and complicity in the dancing of all of these performers. Tybalt was not dark and sinister as he has often been portrayed, but more a hot-tempered teenager, fiercely protective of his young cousin, treating Romeo’s advances as insults, and whose dagger in Mercutio’s back was the result of outraged pride. And, as in all performances given by this fine company, the realistic swordfights were brilliantly accomplished.

Rudolf Nureyev’s version of Romeo and Juliet is not only the most dramatic and most technically difficult ballet created on the doomed lovers’, it is also a creation full of humour, generosity, excess, theatricality, and provocation. It is a magnificent work with just that touch of vulgarity which the American writer Anna Kisselgoff summed up as being, "pure Nureyev". 

The Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris was conducted by Vello Pahn and the company was coached by Patricia Ruanne and Frederic Jahn, creators of Juliet and Tybalt respectively in 1977.

Headline image: Laetitia Pujol and Mathieu Ganio
Nureyev: Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Julien Bernhamou

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Portuguese choreographer Paulo Ribeiro.



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