Miami City Ballet’s season opened in November with Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, with more modern and experimental programs to follow, along with other classics, including Jerome Robbins’s thematically related West Side Story Suite.
Romeo and Juliet may be a timeless romance, but Prokoviev’s adaptation for dance remains an enduring artifact of Soviet times. The dramatist and arts administrator Adrian Piotrovsky suggested the subject to Prokofiev in 1934 as a commission for what was then known as the Leningrad State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet—now known again by its original title, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater. The subject was well-suited to Soviet policy regarding the arts, which at that time favored “dramatic ballet” (dramballet)—characterized by an easily recognizable plot—over the experimental abstractions of form and movement that dominated ballet’s modernist idiom. The Romeo and Juliet story also suited the Soviet arts establishment’s reversion to the classics after failed attempts to create a novel “proletarian” arts culture.
Prokofiev began composing his score while he was being lured back to the Soviet Union through a combination of official flattery and surreptitious threats. His original rendering, written with the director Sergei Radlov, changed Shakespeare’s tragic ending into a happy one in which the star-crossed lovers survive. The arts commissars rejected this alteration, however, and reassigned the project to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, where it languished through Stalin’s Great Terror. Prokofiev’s dissonant music and the awkwardness of his initial adaptation with Radlov invited lethal consequences. Piotrovsky, who had suggested Prokofiev’s subject, was denounced for the unusual offense of “balletic falsification,” arrested, and executed. Radlov left for German-occupied Paris during World War II and ended up in the Gulag after making the mistake of returning home in 1945. Prokofiev survived until his natural death in 1953—coincidentally on the same day as Stalin—but his work suffered. His pro-revolutionary opera Semyon Kotko was postponed after its intended director Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured, and shot.
Disfavored at home, Romeo and Juliet premiered improbably in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1938, put on by a visiting Yugoslavian dance company, where it passed almost unnoticed. Its eventual Leningrad premiere in 1940, however, was a massive success and enshrined the work in the highest echelon of Russian art. When its choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky restaged it for the Bolshoi in 1946, he was awarded the Stalin Prize, the highest honor for cultural achievement. The production was a centerpiece of the Bolshoi’s historic 1956 visit to the United Kingdom, where it captivated audiences in a coup for Soviet cultural diplomacy. Eighty-two years after its premiere, it is still in the Mariinsky Theater’s repertoire and unlikely to be replaced.
Ninette de Valois, the dancer who founded and directed the Royal Ballet, tried to book the Lavrovsky production to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1964, but she could not reach an agreement with the Soviets before Lavrovsky’s removal from his post and her own retirement. Instead, de Valois’ successor, Frederick Ashton, commissioned the young choreographer Kenneth MacMillan (later a director of the Royal Ballet himself) to create an original new production. MacMillan’s version, which premiered in 1965 and starred the recently defected Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as Romeo, answered the monumental realism of Lavrovsky’s production. Still in the repertoire today, it also added an element of brutality to the general setting and jerky, angular gesticulations to suggest that the deaths were not gracious and philosophical, but cruel and resisted.
Miami City Ballet’s iteration of the piece was choreographed by South Africa’s John Cranko, having premiered for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1962 and entered MCB’s repertoire in 2011. Cranko’s approach leaves behind the brutalist and angular settings and gestures that came to dominate the work’s performance in the Soviet Union, instead embracing a far more intimate and humane tone. It unburdens Prokofiev’s work from domination by impersonal forces and indulges the title characters’ youthful passions and fatal exuberance. Cranko’s rapturous sensuality rests in that delicate place between infatuation and the sort of lust that youth hopes will blossom into passionate love.
Susan Benson’s sets and costumes, originally created for the National Ballet of Canada, remove much of the busy Renaissance pageantry of the other landmark productions and turned Verona and its citizens into a romantic anyplace. The decision effectively transfers our attention to the characters’ romance. Even Act I’s tyrannical “Dance of the Knights”—the score’s best known music—is more a stylized portent of danger than a cruel act of repression. The swordplay that opens the action sheds the cruelty of MacMillan’s production and instead comes to resemble an elegant fencing match thanks to Christian Sordelet’s exquisite fight direction. Robert Thomson’s lighting casts the action in subdued hues, creating alluring shadows at crucial moments, best of all for the story’s iconic balcony scene.
Cameron Catazaro danced an impassioned Romeo with outsized emotion tempered by grace and finesse. His Juliet, Nina Fernandes, matched his elegance with swooning, swanlike movements. Both dancers have risen steadily from the company’s corps de ballet, where they arrived only within the last few years. Guest artist Reyneris Reyes performed with gravitas as Lord Capulet alongside Dawn Atkins as his spouse. The new principal dancer Steven Loch’s Tybalt and Alexander Kaden’s Mercutio were confrontational without losing the scenario’s sense of intimacy. Veteran dancer Bradley Dunlap rendered an authoritative but benevolent Friar Laurence.
Miami City Ballet’s principal conductor, Gary Sheldon, led a brassy performance from the Opus 1 Orchestra, which tends toward an oom-pah-pah sound. Nevertheless, the effect served Prokofiev’s score well.