Hector Berlioz tried his hand at the subject in 1839 and the Shakespeare tragedy inspired Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1869 overture, but it was Sergei Prokofiev who in 1935 completed the score for Romeo and Juliet that became the “go to” for choreographers. Filled with turbulent dissonance and moments of exquisite beauty Prokofiev’s music sections are titled to track Shakespeare’s play. The dark and powerful Dance of the Knights opens the Capulet’s fateful ball, the surging waves of young passion propel the balcony scene, and the exuberant, joyful energy in the piazza that devolves into the deadly armed fury of the warring families and repeated body counts. The music demanded to be danced. But just as their parents’ politics kept the two lovers apart, shifting Soviet cultural politics kept Prokofiev’s music and the proposed ballet separated for five years, moving from St. Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet to the Bolshoi and finally back to the Kirov (now the Maryiinsky) Ballet.
Choreographers starting with Leonid Lavrosky for that original Russian premiere in 1940, then Sir Frederick Ashton for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1955 and Kenneth MacMillan for the Britain’s Royal Ballet in 1965 produced lavish, sweeping theatrical ballets that employed the large-scale resources and theaters of those major companies. Over the years, the who’s who of ballet including Rudolf Nureyev, John Neumeier, and Yuri Grigorovich among others took their shot with the Prokofiev score as did the Stuttgart Ballet’s John Cranko. Cranko developed a detailed chamber version in 1962 that captured the story’s theatrical essence but scaled to better suit the Stuttgart’s size and the extraordinary dramatic capacities of dancers like Marcia Haydee and Richard Cragun.
L.A. audiences most frequently have seen MacMillan’s R&J, first with Britain’s Royal Ballet in the 1960s, the film version with Margo Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev at the height of Rudi-mania, and then American Ballet Theater. Los Angeles Ballet presented Ashton’s rarely seen version in 2016 and in 1985 the Joffrey Ballet (now the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago) brought the Cranko Romeo & Juliet here. Cranko’s version was a popular feature during the Joffrey’s several years as the Music Center’s resident dance company. The death of its artistic director Robert Joffrey and subsequent financial feuding between his successor Gerald Arpino and the Joffrey’s L.A. Board of Directors ended badly for all sides, especially the L.A. dance audience. The Joffrey shifted its focus and name to Chicago, but continued to visit. Under current artistic director Ashley Wheater who succeeded Arpino, those visits seem to be increasing and the performances starting this week includes a new version of Romeo and Juliet as yet unseen in L.A.
In 2014, Wheater traded in the Cranko Romeo and Juliet for a new model and L.A. gets its first look at Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo & Juliet this weekend. Originally set on the Scottish Ballet in 2008, Pastor still employs the Prokofiev score, the action still revolves around the two lovers from feuding families, and the ballet is still in Italy, but from there takes a sharp turn from Shakespeare and traditional ballet versions. No longer are the feuding households “of equal dignity”. Juliet’s Capulets are upper class while Romeo’s Montagues are the Italian equivalent of the other side of the tracks. No longer set in the Renaissance, Romeo and Juliet engage in time travel with the lovers repeatedly dropped into a time machine of war and politics over the three acts. Opening with Mussolini fascists in the 1930’s, Act 2 moves the action to the Red Brigade and political kidnappings in the 1970’s. Act 3 concluded with Silvio Berlusconi’s corruption and the 1990’s social upheaval which seems to be prescient with the Berlusconi-fueled anti-immigrant politics injected into the recent Italian election.
Pastor follows in a long line of choreographers who retain the architecture of the ballet, but re-imagine and engage in alterations that range from a mild to major, taking the ballet into new and sometimes nether realms. Inspired by Tasmania, Graeme Murphy set a 2010 frequent flier version for the Australian Ballet that had the lovers marry in Japan but move to India for the sword fight that kills Mercutio and Tybalt, and finds Juliet’s bier in the desert, plus bicycles, a rowboat and a band of Hare Krishna devotees. France’s Angelin Preljocaj gave us an oppressive, dystopian landscape of enforced conformity. Peter Martins went for verisimilitude, casting 16- and 15-year old ballet students as Romeo and Juliet. The Bolshoi’s Yuri Gregorovich brought his version to L.A. with the theatrical sets eliminated, the ballet stripped to bare costume essentials and the choreographer focus shifted heavily toward Juliet’s sociopathic cousin Tybalt. Alex Ratmansky’s 2011 production that fiddled with the ending was part of the National Ballet of Canada’s tour to L.A. tour.
Amid these traditional versions and reconceptualizations, the long-missing original Prokofiev score for Romeo and Juliet was found. It was known that the Lavrosky choreography for the original 1940 production included a number of cuts (including a line-up of divertissements that generally populate Act III of Russian ballets unfortunately planned for right after Juliet took the sleeping potion) and a change from Prokofiev’s planned happy ending (Friar Lawrence was scheduled to interfere with Romeo taking the poison giving Juliet time to awaken and the lovers reunite, then escape with the friar’s aid). Some of the excised music went into other Prokofiev compositions, but Lavrosky’s edited version became universally used. Always ready to take up a challenge, choreographer Mark Morris accepted the invitation to create to the discovered original score and constructed a modern dance version with dancers moving among a stage with scattered dollhouses standing in for Verona, with women portraying Mercrutio and Tybalt, and with Prokofiev’s original happy ending.
Pastor’s version for the Joffrey has received strong reviews and has proven popular in Chicago. The Joffrey’s unusual R&J performance schedule reflects the company doing double duty this visit in the L.A. Opera’s production of another story of doomed lovers, Orpheus and Eurydice. Directed and choreographed by Hamburg Ballet’s John Neumeier, the opera is a co-production with the Chicago Lyric Opera where the Joffrey also danced in Neumeier’s production of the opera. Complete performance details for Romeo and Juliet and Orpheus and Eurydice at http://musiccenter.org. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Romeo & Juliet: Fri., March 9 & Sat., March 17, 7:30 p.m., Sun., March 11 & Sat., March 17, 2:30 p.m., $34-$125. http://musiccenter.org/joffrey. Orpheus & Eurydice: Sat., March 10, Thurs., March 15, Wed., March 21, Sat., March 24, 7:30 p.m., Sun., March 18 & 25, 2 p.m., $29-$289. http://laopera.org.