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MacMillan and Prokofiev

Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s creative environment was thoroughly opposite to Sergei Profokiev’s: Unlike 1930s Russia, a thoroughly constrained creative environment of censoring, suspicion towards artistic experimentation, and Great Purges, the creative environment in 1960s England was defined by irrepressible musical and creative experimentation combined with a novel indifference for authority.

This new interest in challenging authority in England resulted from a combination of war, music, politics. World War II was finally far away enough to allow young people to focus on having fun and developing their individuality. Events in British politics, such as the 1963 Profumo affair, had eroded a nation’s trust in authority and in their leaders, leading to a loss of respect for the classical and authoritative. This contempt for the classical was reflected in the cultural and especially musical experimentation of the time; ballet was no exception.

Importantly, the English generation that came of age during the 1960s was the first to be free of conscription. The concept of being enlisted is very present in Romeo & Juliet. Simply being born a Capulet or a Montague was paramount to being drafted in an endless, senseless war, very similar to how the Vietnam War was regarded.

Romeo and Juliet, as teenagers who devote themselves to love in face of the never-ending violence between their families, would have been attractive to this generation and culture. Friar Lawrence consents to marry the young lovers only because he hopes their marriage would end the feud between their two families, a philosophy strongly reminiscent of hippies’ Make Love Not War campaigns. The theme of young people standing up against violence, of refusing to blindly follow authority, and of defending their individuality, as many young people in Britain were doing, made Romeo & Juliet an attractive ballet for the time.

 

Style

MacMillan was known for powerful psychological expression, for pushing ballet into areas formerly considered beyond its range, and most of all, for proving that classical dance could be a controversial and thought provoking art form.  His fascination with ballet, and his passion for choreography, originated in his desire to realize ballet’s expressive potential. “I had to find a way to stretch the language – otherwise I should just produce sterile academic dance.”

This ability to think differently and creatively about a traditional language set MacMillan apart. Even in his earliest pieces there is a distinctive prioritization of the mind, a level of psychological understanding that intensifies the powerful revelations in his choreography.  Examples of his focus on potent emotion and profoundly psychological storylines include some of his most famous pieces, most notably Mayerling (1978), inspired by the suicide of the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austro-Hungary, and Valley of Shadows (1983), based on Georgio Bassani’s Holocaust novel. MacMillan’s choreography succeeds in portraying characters whose emotional identities are delightfully, realistically complex; unconstrained by the classical, balletic movement and vividly lifelike in their emotions, “these people lived after curtain fall,” wrote Clement Crisp.

MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet (1965) is distinctive and extraordinary because it is a culmination of the themes of emotional complexity and great passion that are continuously prevalent throughout his work in the form of a cherished classic. The ballet’s 1965 world premiere by the Royal Ballet firmly established the company as the most exciting narrative dance company of the time.

MacMillan often based his choreographies on the psychological states and personalities of his characters. In Romeo & Juliet, he envisioned Juliet as a willful, determined, and passionate young woman who decides on all major decisions of the relationship: proposing a secret marriage, defying her parents, taking Friar Lawrence’s potion, and joining Romeo in death. MacMillan’s Romeo, on the other hand, is an infatuated young man giddy with exultation, swept of his feet by love.

Another important stylistic difference MacMillan introduced was creating dance that evolved from natural actions: in contrast to ballet customs at the time, MacMillan removed the traditional spot-lit entrances introducing principal characters and the poses for applause at the end of scenes.  Examples of these changes in Romeo & Juliet include Romeo’s subtle arrival at the beginning of the ballet as Rosaline’s anonymous suitor, and Juliet’s unnoticed entrance at the ball thrown in her honor.

MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet quickly became a signature piece of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, as well as the best-known version of the ballet in Britain and in the United States. MacMillan set the ballet on several companies during his lifetime, including for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1971, the American Ballet Theatre in 1985 and the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1992.  This is the first time the Pennsylvania Ballet performs MacMillan’s version of Romeo & Juliet.

MacMillan took a beloved classic and made it meaningful and relevant, emphasizing the importance of love and of individuals in a way that continues to resonate with audiences today.

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