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Kenneth staged ballet productions about real people with real fates

Interview with Lady Deborah MacMillan, a choreographer’s wife,
a copyright holder of his ballet Romeo and Juliet


— What is the history of creation of this ballet? There are different versions of what inspired Sir MacMillan to choreograph Romeo and Juliet. Some say that it was the ballet of the same name by Leonid Lavrovsky, which the Bolshoi Theatre showed on tour in London in 1956, with legendary Galina Ulanova dancing Juliet. Others say that John Cranko’s performance in Stuttgarter Ballett was the impulse. How did it all actually happen?
— Kenneth was inspired to create his own Romeo and Juliet after seeing the Bolshoi perform the Lavrovsky version with Galina Ulanova in London in 1956. He particularly responded to Ulanova's dramatic expressivity with the classical language: she reinforced his belief that ballet could also express human drama as well as the fairy tales of classical ballet. Cranko who was a good friend had done a version and there was certainly friendly rivalry between them. Kenneth thought the Prokofiev score was one of the very best ballet scores ever written and when Frederick Ashton who was then Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet asked him to choreograph a full length ballet he immediately chose Romeo and Juliet. He choreographed it for Lynne Seymour and Christopher Gable.

— Why did Sir Kenneth MacMillan decide to finish the plot of the ballet with the death of Veronese lovers? Why didn’t he give a chance to Montague and Capulet to reconcile?
How does it correlate with the main idea of the ballet, in choreographer’s point of view? — As I was not in London at the time and indeed did not meet him until 1970, I can only assume that Kenneth ended the ballet with the death of the lovers and not with a reconciliation between the two families — as in Shakespeare — because of the drama of their deaths: he was a man of the theatre and a dramatic ending was always his preference. On the other hand, from what I can discover, Prokofiev did not write any music for a 'reconciliation', The happy ending he did for the Kirov' premiere was not his original intention.

— In terms of his relations with Russia, Russian culture, Sir Kenneth MacMillan can be called “Tom Stoppard of ballet”. Would you agree with such a definition?
— Both Tom Stoppard and Kenneth MacMillan are men of the theatre, Stoppard's language is obviously words and a fascination with their many meanings. Kenneth's language is classical ballet and he felt that by choreographing in this language he could give insights into the human condition, to relationships between human beings and above all to the telling of stories. This language transcends words, indeed complicated stories in ballet can be performed in many different countries and if the work is successful, an audience will connect with it without the need for words.

— What was your husband’s attitude to Russia, its history and culture?
— Kenneth was fascinated with Russia, its history its literature and its ballet companies. He first saw Russian dancers when he was a very young dancer himself. The Royal Ballet company was started by Ninette de Valois who had performed in the Diaghilev company: De Valois brought the Diaghilev ethos to the Royal Ballet — good music, good design and good choreography. Kenneth did several works with a Russian theme: Winter dreams, based on Chekov's Three Sisters; Anastasia, referencing the claim of Anna Andersen who claimed she was the Tsar's surviving daughter: and Isadora, the modern dancer (you have a photograph of her in your excellent staff canteen), who spent a lot of time in Russia and who married the Russian poet Esenin. Sadly Kenneth never visited Russia but it would have given him enormous pleasure to have seen the Perm Ballet perform his Romeo and Juliet and he would have considered it as a huge compliment.

— In Russia, for the ballets which tell the story through dance and pantomime, they have a special term — “dram-ballet” (short for “dramatic ballet”). Examples of this genre are Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Zakharov’s The Fountain of Bakhchisarai. Because of its relation to soviet realm, the term gradually received negative connotation: something similar to “ballet for peasantry”, “ballet for simple people”. Which was the attitude to dramatic ballet in England? Would you agree that this term is applicable to Romeo and Juliet?
— Kenneth said that he wanted to make ballets 'real', about real people with real lives with whom the audience could identify. He was very much a man of the theatre, and was very influenced by the new kind of drama which came to the fore in England in the 1950s with playwrights like John Osborne and his famous Look Back in Anger... Kenneth always felt that he could use the steps of classical ballet to tell this kind of story. Romeo and Juliet is certainly a dramatic ballet as you term it — and the audience is required to engage with the story and the whole stage picture — not just the dancing. As you know it was an immediate success with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, but the ballet was created (as I said before) on the astonishing dramatic and expressive ballerina Lynne Seymour and Christopher Gable (who became a very fine actor after his dancing career was over.)


Interviewed by Natalia Ovchinnikova
Interpreted by Sonya Permyakova

Based on materials provided by Perm Ballett

Now the audience of the 15th Anniversary DANCE OPEN International Ballet Festival will get an opportunity to see the legendary Romeo and Juliet in MacMillan’c choreography performed by the Perm Ballet.