Thanks to Shakespeare’s famous treatment, the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet has fascinated artists in just about every medium, and dance is certainly no exception. In the world of ballet, composer Serge Prokofiev’s amazing score is the undisputed diva: since its premiere in 1938, his Romeo and Juliet has inspired over fifty different productions. This month, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens performs its first full-length production to Prokofiev’s music, with new choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot, director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.
Expect Maillot’s take on Romeo and Juliet to showcase the story’s psychological and emotional depths and to leave out the typical elaborate sets, costumes and crowd scenes. Audiences are “not stupid,” insisted Maillot in a recent phone interview; they already know this story inside and out. What keeps people coming back to these two lovers is the powerful force of attraction between them and the unfortunate circumstances of their ill-fated union.
“I try to show more what two adolescents feel when they fall in love with one another and try to give a dimension that in those other ballets I always felt was missing,” said Maillot. “Love is about flesh, touching, kissing. And first love especially has to do with those butterflies in the stomach.”
He continued, “I always wondered if there was an actual way of carrying this kind of ballet with a new energy and with contemporary codes that could correspond better to the audience today, especially people who don’t know ballet, the audience I am most interested in.”
Maillot decided that a cinematic approach would be just the ticket to breathe life back into literature’s most famous lovers. Nowadays, people are more familiar with the storytelling techniques of film than with those of theatre. Besides, to Maillot, Prokofiev’s famous ballet score already sounded a lot like movie music. (The composer, in fact, wrote scores for several Russian movies, including Eisenstein’s masterpiece Alexander Nevsky.)
To achieve this cinematic effect onstage, Maillot moved the character Friar Laurence front and centre. As the choreographer sees it, it is the monk who is most responsible for the tragedy of the two lovers: “By the end, this guy who so much wanted to help them has destroyed them.” Since the friar is the “most touched and confused” character of the play, the story is seen through his eyes in the form of a flashback. This allows the action to be, for instance, put into slow motion, sped up or interrupted, allowing for a movielike seamlessness. Maillot didn’t want to give the audience the opportunity to applaud before the end of an act—that nineteenth-century habit just doesn’t work for him anymore.
Since Prokofiev’s music is so emotionally rich in detail, both the choreography and the set (which consists only of light and shadow playing on a white wall) were kept as spare as possible, while still remaining true to the emotions of the characters. For Maillot, drama does not equal fussy choreography.
“I have always felt embarrassed when Juliet is supposed to express so much love, and she is dancing en pointe, pirouetting—especially when she dies. This was something not credible for me anymore.”
Although he didn’t wholly abandon classical technique, Maillot purposely avoided choreography that was merely “a demonstration” of such technique, using natural movement whenever possible. If a pirouette was true to the emotion of the moment, then so be it—as long as the formal step was the logical consequence of the sentiment being expressed. Mostly, though, he hoped that after a performance audiences would remember not the choreography, but how the choreography moved them.
This same philosophy guides Maillot in his choice of works for Les Ballets Monte-Carlo. As director, he has brought in some of today’s best choreographers—Forsythe, Kylián, Tharp, Armitage, Childs—to add to Monte-Carlo’s repertoire, which was already brimming over with the ballets of early-twentieth-century greats like Balanchine, Fokine, Massine and Nijinsky. “The only rule I have is that I don’t want to be bored. You can give me anything. You can shock me, you can hurt me, you can please me—I agree with everything as long as I am not bored.”
Maillot worries that too much new choreography pretends to be profound and interesting, but is instead deadly dull. While he seeks non-traditional movement in his own work, he is wearied with the postmodern fascination with “nondance”: Dance, in particular ballet, “used to show to the audience what will never be—the cult of beauty, the cult of inaccessibility … Now we have reached a point where we have a cult of ugliness, a cult of accessibility.” In some quarters of the dance world, he feels that the thinking is not very different from that of shows like American Idol, where at the end “only the mediocre stay. Nobody likes anyone really great.”
Nonetheless, Maillot is hopeful that dance will move on. “We are such a young art in a way. What we are going through is what painting, literature have been through already before.” In this brave new world of possibilities, he sees his place as a choreographer from “no group, no school” of thought, willing to be inspired by anything. “Honestly,” says Maillot, “I am as ready to see the second act of Giselle and have as much fun” as with the latest, cutting-edge work. The most important thing, he stresses, is that “whatever you do, you achieve as much as you can in your domain.”
Romeo and Juliet runs October 14–16 and 21–23 at Montreal’s Place des Arts. Visit Les Grands Ballets Canadiens for more information.
Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.