A chapter from Following Sir Fred's Steps - Ashton's Legacy, the published proceedings of the conference on the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and his work, held at Roehampton University in 1994, and edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau.
Romeo and Juliet
Theatricality and other techniques of expression
1985 was the year of Romeo and Juliet in many companies. The Royal Ballet broadcast Kenneth MacMillan’s production with Wayne Eagling and Alessandra Ferri in the title roles. In New York, American Ballet Theatre was also performing MacMillan’s, and the Joffrey Ballet had just mounted John Cranko’s production. That spring, Frederick Ashton began preparations to revive his production of Romeo and Juliet for the summer season of London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet). The revival of this work, which Ashton had choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet thirty years earlier, was inspired by the single-minded vision of the artistic director Peter Schaufuss, whose mother, Mona Vangsaae, and father, Frank Schaufuss, were the original Juliet and Mercutio in the Danish production.
From March to July of that year, with intervals to allow for performances and rehearsals of other ballets, Ashton came a few times a week to Festival Ballet House in Kensington to rehearse Romeo and Juliet. As the first cast Juliet, I had the privilege of working with Ashton in most of these rehearsals. I was also fortunate to be able to work with Niels Bjørn Larsen of the Royal Danish Ballet as he reconstructed the Copenhagen production from an 8-mm black-and-white film and from his notes. The intensive preparations included two-hour private pas de deux rehearsals with Ashton at least three times a week.
Ashton’s production of Romeo contrasts strongly with most other productions widely seen in the West in that it focuses more on the emotions of the lovers than on the societal struggle evidenced by the family feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. Therefore, significant time was devoted to the preparation of the two title protagonists, and I had ample opportunity to observe the mounting of the entire production from its inception to its finish.
The element that Ashton stressed the most in the preparation of Romeo and Juliet was that of the theatrical. By this I mean the methods and vast knowledge of stagecraft with which he facilitated the presentation and projection of the characters’ dramatic, intense emotions on stage. A theatrical effect that was clearly visible to the public was of paramount importance, and took precedence over the complications of steps or technique, unless they facilitated or revealed the desired effect. I intend to discuss his emphasis on the theatrical and how it was employed in this particular production, as well as his specific technical preferences in timing, accentuation and port de bras. I will analyse these categories by focusing primarily on the role of Juliet, drawing upon videotape and journals and notes that I kept at the time, as well as my recollections.
When rehearsals began, several dancers were learning the role of Juliet, including Lucia Truglia, Virginie Alberti and myself. We were supposed to learn the role with Larsen, and then after a few weeks, Ashton would come in and rehearse us himself. In working with Larsen, Kirsten Ralov and Frank Schaufuss (who performed the first cast Lord and Lady Capulet and Escalus respectively), I learned how to project the gestures that tell a story. There is a certain sombre rhythm that infuses their mime, rendering it crystal clear. I learned that if I was asked a question in mime, it should be asked slowly and clearly. Then I should wait a moment before answering - also slowly, clearly, and with generous gestures. Otherwise the dialogue essential to a dramatic production would lapse into obscurity, doing nothing to further the plot.
When I was told, about nine weeks beforehand, that Ashton had chosen me to dance Juliet both in the premiere and in the second performance on 23 and 24 July 1985, I cancelled my original plans to compete in the International Ballet Competition in Moscow that June. Because I should have been competing, I was not scheduled to join London Festival Ballet on their tour to Copenhagen, so it was decided that I would remain in London and work with Ashton privately while they were away.
He cast a very long shadow over many facets of my dancing: my comportment, port de bras, mime, acting and characterisations. I subsequently danced Juliet in John Cranko’s production many years later. I have found that often I understand the true dynamics of a role only after I have danced it. I had a professor once who said that one can truly understand a particular culture only if one speaks the language of that culture. It is an apt analogy for a technical analysis of roles. Such analysis is facilitated by speaking the language of a particular production and existing within its context.
Dancing Cranko’s Juliet made me realise how much Ashton’s production is the story of the lovers, particularly Juliet, as opposed to a sprawling epic of societal clashing. Ashton’s Juliet is independent. She is always dancing. She shows a precocious ability to dissemble during the ball when she commands the assembled company to continue with the festivities after Tybalt discovers her alone with Romeo. In Cranko’s version, she simply runs to cower with her nurse (who is conspicuously absent in Ashton’s ball). In Ashton’s Juliet, indecision, despair and her individual initiatives are expressed through dancing almost until the end of the ballet. By contrast, it is illuminating to note that, after Cranko’s bedroom pas de deux at the beginning of Act III, Juliet has no more steps to dance. She walks, she runs, and she sits, but, save for two relevés into arabesque, she does not dance. She is a pawn who fulfils her position in the ballet by the fact that she exists as the marriageable daughter of the Capulet family. Compare those relevé arabesques with Ashton’s intricately danced mime scene, as she relates her predicament to the Friar. Moreover, Ashton truncates the opening scene of the ballet in which the audience is introduced to the long-running conflict, while Cranko presents a full-blooded crowd scene complete with fruit-throwing and a cast of thousands.
Ashton also adheres to fine literal points drawn from Shakespeare’s play. For instance, the clawing movements given to Tybalt at the opening of the ballet are a direct allusion to Mercutio’s characterisation of Tybalt in Shakespeare’s text as the ‘Prince of Cats’, the ‘ratcatcher’ and the ‘Good King of Cats’.
Another example is the name of Mercutio’s love interest. Ashton discards the character of Rosaline altogether, and along with it the arrival of the guests at the ball in Act I, thereby emphasising the absolute love of Romeo for Juliet. Instead he creates a girlfriend for Mercutio, whose name, Livia, is drawn from the guest list that Romeo happens to read for the Capulet Ball. A third example is the repeated, sweeping gesture that Ashton’s lovers make to the sky during the balcony scene pas de deux, a nod to Romeo’s invocation of the stars as a simile for Juliet’s eyes.
Sir Frederick had two major corrections for me. First, I had to stop ‘dropping my wrists’. He meant I should discard the broken wrist flourishes that are a distinguishing characteristic of the Balanchine school, of which I was a product. When I was eight years old in the School of American Ballet, one of my teachers, Elise Reiman, spent an entire lesson teaching twenty little girls how to create the illusion of air manipulating their hands as they executed different port de bras movements. But Ashton was adamantly opposed to any independent movement of the hand from the arm because, he said, it broke the visual line of the arm for the audience, and the clarity of the position was lost. The wrist correction was the most essential in the tomb scene when Romeo dances with Juliet’s dead body. Owing to the exigencies of rigor mortis, it was important that there be no floppiness whatsoever in Juliet’s ‘movements’, particularly in the wrists. Ashton follows Shakespeare’s text in the manner of Romeo’s and Juliet’s suicides (by poison and stabbing, respectively). When Juliet stabs herself, she faces front, thereby placing the phallic symbolism of the method on clear display for the audience. The marriage is finally consummated for all of eternity in the method she uses to unite herself with her dead husband.
While the wrists should always remain unbroken, the fingers were allowed to demonstrate inner turmoil. Ashton stipulated that the fingers of both Romeo and Juliet tremble during their first meeting in the ball. Juliet’s fingers were also supposed to tremble during her third act scene with Friar Laurence and in the potion scene - whenever she holds the vial of potion.
The other main correction he emphasised was that my head should not be kept straight all the time: if I put my head up, then I must really put it up, and if I turned it to the side, then I should really turn it to the side. Otherwise, he explained carefully, the movement would not register visually with the audience. He added head movements during the extended series of Juliet’s hops during which Romeo partners her in a manège. He felt that the head movement provided a connection to the spectators as the characters travelled around the back of the stage facing away from the audience, because it allowed brief glimpses of their facial features. In like fashion, he preferred épaulement, the orientation of the body, to be exaggerated so that it would register from afar. This applied throughout the piece, not only for Juliet, but also most notably in the sweeping dances for the guests at the ball, the newly created pas de trois for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio in Act II, and in the early morning dance of the mandolin players in Act III. As the players are perched atop the rostrum across the back of the stage that structures the action throughout the ballet, they are farthest away from the audience and therefore the most difficult to see.
The rostrum and the stairs that lead up to it, in fact, serve the distinct purpose of facilitating the display of various tableaux, throwing the various characters into relief as the story progresses. One of the notable relationships that it highlights is Juliet’s to Paris. As the rehearsals progressed, I began to wonder if Juliet likes Paris until she meets Romeo. When I asked Sir Frederick, he said yes, and I realised that that was why the role of Paris was not just a cipher, but an actual dancing role. Paris is given the opportunity to see Juliet and Romeo slip away together during the course of the ball. Juliet is still bemused by Paris even after she meets Romeo. In the first cast’s version, after she has agreed to marry Paris with that internal yet visible gesture of great personal anguish directed at the Nurse, she watches him walk away, almost as though she regrets the circumstances that will tear them apart. The final punctuation of this relationship is her horrified compassion when she discovers his dead body in the crypt. Ashton wanted a visible shudder to run through her body as she realises that the attractive young man is dead. This relationship emphasises the bond between Romeo and Juliet. Paris is not undesirable, and therefore the attachment of the two title protagonists must indeed be a strong one.
Ashton took pains to situate Juliet in the context of the whole production, attending to each detail of the story and adding new texture to the character. He reminded me that in the nursery scene, pre-Romeo, I should be joyful at the news of my planned marriage. Originally, after Romeo kills Tybalt, Larsen had told me to come out, stand to one side on the rostrum and watch the proceedings as Romeo is banished. When Ashton saw this, he said to me, ‘You should react,’ again following Shakespeare’s text. It was a clever idea, inasmuch as the audience can see that Juliet is aware of her predicament. It is the only time that Juliet makes an appearance in any of the market scenes. I pleaded with the Prince of Verona, although he could not ‘see’ me, I wept, and at Ashton’s behest I was taken off the stage at the close of the act in Lady Capulet’s arms. I was not sure if I should be doing more or less in this ‘lamentation’, as I thought of it. Ashton never commented on it. After the premiere, he talked about working with Rudolf Nureyev, because he knew I liked him. He told me how difficult it was to convince Rudolf to do what he wanted.
‘You could never keep Rudolf still onstage he remembered. ‘The Swan Queen would be going through her thing, and there would be Rudolf jumping around on the side, until finally I would say, “For God’s sake, stand still!”
I feared he was thinking of my little lamentation. Imagine my relief when, after my third performance, his only correction was that I should stand closer to the centre of the rostrum and make my ‘lamentation’ bigger!
The rostrum is also part of an overall strategy in the Ashton production to freeze important visual moments. Ashton wanted each position held for as long as possible, almost to allow time for someone to snap a photograph. It reinforces the idea of a tableau, wherein the audience can retain an image of Juliet and Paris together during the ball, or Juliet and Romeo spotlighted during their first meeting in centre stage, or Lady Capulet mourning Juliet’s feigned death in Act III.
His coaching incorporated the balletic equivalent of the etiquette and deportment taught to debutantes in finishing school. I was not supposed to look at my mother, Lady Capulet, in the eye whenever I curtsied to her because it was not ‘proper’. In other scenes, however, my eyes were supposed to talk. Walking forward with Romeo in the ballroom scene, my eyes were supposed to convey my nervousness by their agitation and uncertainty. Ashton always invoked Margot Fonteyn as the greatest exponent of conveying feeling through the eyes. The movements of the eyes were actually choreographed to the music in the moments before Juliet’s potion scene in Act III. This cedes into the bodily swaying that emulates a clock’s ticking as Juliet tries to decide if she should drink the potion or not. Swaying of the body in Romeo refers to indecision - being pulled in one direction or the other, as in the potion scene, the flight to Friar Laurence and the subsequent scene with Friar Laurence.
Other parts of my body were given similar attention. If my arms had to hang down by my sides, then they had to be held behind my shoulders. If I was walking down the stairs in the ballroom, I had to put one foot directly in front of the other, turn out all the way, straighten the leg, point each foot fully before it touched each stair — all without bouncing or looking down. I was never allowed to stand still on the stage in any other position except for a tendu or else what in the Balanchine school is called B-Plus (where one leg is placed behind the other in a bent tendu).
‘You are a ballerina,’ he admonished. ‘You must always stand like one.’
Whenever I kissed Romeo during the balcony scene or the bedroom pas de deux, Ashton would instantly remind me to stand properly. After a while, it became a reflex. For years, I could not stand simply with two feet together onstage in any ballet no matter what I was doing - even when that was specifically required by the choreographer!
Ashton embellished the nursery scene through the use of rapid pointework. The épaulement was exaggerated, and all the quick series of pas de cheval were changed from the éffacé leg to the croisé leg in order to achieve a prettier line. He asked for specific hand movements during the pas de cheval. The pas de cheval motif progresses from Juliet’s almost hysterically happy rendition in her nursery to a more dignified manifestation by her attendants at the ball during their dance with Mercutio. It culminates in a final slow, forbidding tempo magnified by the passel of flower girls who arrive in the third act, reflecting and emphasising Juliet’s coming of age and her impending collision with reality.
Act III was also revised for Juliet. He significantly expanded the scene in which Juliet decides to seek help from Friar Laurence, making her clearly mime that she has the idea to visit Friar Laurence, and having her sway back and forth in an agony of indecision. Ashton and Alexander Grant coached me precisely for the big ‘Ulanova run’, their name for Juliet’s flight to Friar Laurence. I ran and ran and ran, trying to achieve what they wanted — head, arms, cloak and torso thrown back, feet leading the way in quick powerful steps. Alastair Macaulay wryly commented that ‘Ashton had also helped Healy to make certain other effects, such as whipping up a storm of audience applause’ with this (1985, p. 37). That was certainly not the goal: it was an expression of despairing flight and determination. There again, an example of a theatrical effect upon the audience.
Someone had told Ashton that I used to skate in John Curry’s Skating Company, and he was interested in the different positions of skating spins. As I worked with him, I found that, despite his eminence and position, Ashton was very curious and open-minded about other performing arts. I was duly called upon to explain and demonstrate the layback spin - a spin executed in an attitude derrière combined with a deep cambré back. Ashton decided that Romeo should do this just before drinking the poison in the tomb scene. Three more laybacks were inserted for me, always during moments of great despair: once when Juliet runs to the Friar in front of the curtain, and two again during the potion scene, which were more difficult because he wanted them to be very slow and controlled. The laybacks functioned as an off-balance indicator of agitation and disorientation and served to unify the two main characters - both execute this step during stressful moments. For good measure, Ashton created a baroquely ornate manège during Juliet’s scene with Friar Laurence that included a relevé arabesque turn in penchée that was also originally derived from the camel spin in figure skating. (Other Juliets later altered this manège because, as I am a left turner, it involved pirouettes to both the right and left, and most ballerinas prefer to turn only to the right.)
Objects acquired personalities, becoming a powerful semiotic method in Ashton’s production. The medallion that Romeo presents to Juliet at the end of the bedroom pas de deux becomes the stand-in for Romeo. Romeo’s medallion and the vial of sleeping potion wage a silent but highly visible battle for control of Juliet’s mind during her solitary anguish in Act III. It is a subtler means to describe this dilemma than, say, that used by Rudolf Nureyev in his production, where the ghosts of the characters of Tybalt and Mercutio wrangle over the hypnotised Juliet. Ashton stipulated exactly how I was to open and close the vial, how to throw away the lid so the audience would really see it, how I was to hold the vial generally, how my hand should tremble when I held it and how to drink it, until it took on a life of its own. ‘It should be alive,’ he would explain to me patiently.
Sometimes he subverted theatrical convention. Flowers evolved into a macabre motif. Ashton inserted a new moment in the wedding scene in Act II. In a re-creation of any standard curtain call, Romeo was to present a bouquet of flowers to Juliet, whereupon she was to pull a single flower out of the bouquet and present it back to him. The metaphor is exquisite. In formal balletic etiquette, such a gesture by the ballerina occurs at the end of the evening when the ballet is finished. Here, however, in the context of Shakespeare’s play, Ashton uses this clichéd yet touching exchange to signal the formal close of the comedic portion of the ballet with the traditional denouement of the wedding, thereby providing the transition to the tragedy that will follow. Romeo clutches the pathetic little flower throughout the next scene until he is confronted with the unpalatable choice between Tybalt’s glove challenging him to a duel and the flower symbolising his doomed union with Juliet. This is an earlier example of a struggle between objects that come to represent people. Flowers thereafter appear always in the presence of tragedy; the lilies of the flower girls when they arrive to awaken Juliet on her wedding day and instead find her lifeless body, and Paris’s touching bouquet when he comes to the crypt to mourn the premature death of his young bride-to-be.
A prime example of Ashton’s theatricality is Juliet’s last excruciating crawl towards Romeo after she has stabbed herself at the end of the ballet. Ashton creates one last moment of suspense - the audience is left hoping that she makes it all the way to Romeo’s lifeless body for one final embrace. It is a subtle method to arouse sympathy in the public for the characters that has nothing to do with ballet technique or steps. I spent a lot of time crawling on the floor during several rehearsals. Ashton wanted me to crawl using only my arms to propel myself forward towards Romeo. It is exceedingly tempting, if one is obliged to crawl, to do so using every part of the body. I almost blew it the night of the premiere, because, after I stabbed myself, I fell to the floor too far downstage in the heat of the moment. I had to scramble upstage before I could even think about heading towards Romeo. Four counts of six pass quickly when one is allowed to use only one’s arms to get there. I was alarmed by the prospect of the curtain closing before I made it to Romeo’s body, but fortunately, I made it just in time!
I feel that these detailed revisions and corrections are significant because Ashton concentrated mainly on coaching the first-night cast. He was concerned about the opening night. ‘The critics are preparing to crucify me,’ he remarked to me, about a week and a half before the premiere.
Many times he worked with Peter Schaufuss and myself either alone or with Alexander Grant and the choreologist Fiona Grantham present. When the company returned to London from Copenhagen, I showed all of the Juliet revisions to Grantham for the notation record. In addition, Lucia Truglia, the second-cast Juliet, requested that I be called out of my own Swanilda rehearsals twice in order to review the Nursery and Act III revisions with her, despite the fact that Grantham had already taught her the new parts (which the latter had notated when I showed them to her). I was very happy to help out, although there was no question that it was not my responsibility to teach the role to the other Juliets. As it happened, first Matz Skoog, the second-cast Romeo, was sidelined with a minor injury in May and June, then Truglia, and then Skoog again. Hence, they had not rehearsed very much until shortly before the premiere. As I recall it, only one private rehearsal was scheduled for Skoog and Truglia alone with Ashton. Following that one rehearsal, the second cast (and the third cast Juliet, Virginie Alberti, who danced with Schaufuss later in the opening week) ended up being rehearsed by other ballet-mistresses in the company, mostly without the benefit of Grantham’s notation.
Gradually a second, less detailed version began to emerge in which the characterisations were influenced more by Nureyev’s previous production for the company than by Ashton’s. Judging by muttered remarks that I heard from time to time in various quarters, I think that the disparity was due not only to a shortage of rehearsal time and mixed-up logistics, but also perhaps to misplaced loyalty to the Nureyev production. In any case, many of those differences can be attributed to the variety of individual interpretations. I had understood that one must try to honour the choreographer’s wishes, but it is sometimes difficult to draw a clear line where set choreography ends and interpretation begins. All I knew was that many of the details and choreographic elements that Ashton had specifically set on us were not executed by the other casts that season. That this was visibly the case is evident from a review by Alastair Macaulay following that season where he states:
“All of these moments are only clear with the first-cast Katherine Healy...At the first two performances she was, however, singularly unspontaneous. But as I went on to watch the other Juliets I realized with dismay how many crucial details had not been passed onto them . . . Several of Juliet’s most poignant gestures never passed beyond the first-cast interpreter.” (Macaulay, 1985, pp. 36—7)
My perceived lack of spontaneity was due to the fact that Ashton had coached me so much that every moment was choreographed. As for ‘details not being passed on’, each of the other casts had the chance to go to the same rehearsals to which I was called, except for the time during the Copenhagen tour; and it has been my personal experience both in Festival Ballet and in other companies that when one is the second or third cast, one is required to learn the role exactly as the first cast learns it.
I became the sole torch-bearer that season for the original, detailed version when Peter Schaufuss left to fulfil a guest engagement in Japan after the week of the premiere, and Ashton no longer came in for daily rehearsals. As I began to rehearse with a new Romeo, Raymond Smith of Canada, for the subsequent performances in the Royal Festival Hall, I found myself second-guessed by ballet-mistresses who had not been present at the original rehearsals but who had rehearsed the other casts. I was constantly questioned about whether I was really sure what I had done in the pas de deux with Schaufuss. After all my rehearsals with Ashton for the premiere - of course I was sure. When I would reply that it was what Ashton wanted, I was usually met with a blank stare and renewed, covertly hostile queries. I was able to stay with Ashton’s original version that he had set on me with some difficulty, and it was unfortunate that Raymond Smith sometimes got caught in the subtle rounds of crossfire. I felt an indescribable loyalty to the version I had rehearsed for so long. For one thing, I had worked very hard on it. For another, Ashton had taken a very big chance with me, and I did not want to let him down by abandoning his wishes. He cared about all those details and was meticulous to the last moment: for example, Alexander Grant rushed to my dressing room about an hour before the premiere to say that Ashton had decided that he wanted me to kiss the cross that hangs from Friar Laurence’s waist as Juliet exits from her second scene with the Friar. Shortly afterwards, Ashton told me himself, in case Grant had forgotten.
I think it is of interest to consider Romeo, partly because it is a lustrous jewel in the Ashton oeuvre and partly because it can function as a paradigm for his other works. When I danced Lise in La Fille mal gardée several years later I found that several of his precepts were equally applicable to that comic piece, such as the purity of line in the port de bras, the Ashtonian philosophy of holding positions for that extra second in order for them to register with the audience, and the importance of clear mime. Romeo also merits consideration because Ashton had the courage to put his work and his reputation on the line at such a late stage in his life. He often humorously referred to the premiere as ‘D-Day’.
But even though he was under pressure, he was unfailingly kind and supportive. He told me at dinner after the premiere not to worry about what the critics were going to write. According to him, they had all said to him ‘But she’s sixteen - she can’t act!’ He told me that he stuck to his guns because he felt he would be able to make me act. Whether or not he succeeded, I think there was a calculated reason that he chose a young ballerina to dance the role. His Juliet, more so than his Romeo, is always actively - through her dancing and her mime that he expanded in the third act - trying to rebel against and overcome the forces of fate that are stacked against her love for Romeo. After all, she marries Romeo knowing that this is in direct conflict with the plans her parents have for her, whereas Romeo marries her while he is still nominally free of any obstacle except for his family name - he kills Tybalt after the wedding, not before.
So many knowledgeable denizens of the ballet world said to me before I danced my first Juliet that, ‘You have to be mature before you can understand the role.’ I do not agree with that, even now, when I am supposedly mature. A mature heiress of a family such as the Capulets would allow her actions to be governed by a pragmatic realpolitik. Either she would have recognised the futility of the whole exercise and not married Romeo to begin with, or she would have committed bigamy and married Paris in order to keep the peace. But Juliet is an idealist, who believes in an all-encompassing love, and has not yet lost her illusions. She kills herself over what is essentially a brief, five-day love affair. Although such a suicide is certainly possible in an adult, it is much more likely to be committed by an impetuous young adult who has not yet succumbed to cynicism. In that sense, I think, Ashton was making a point about the plot. It functions plausibly only as the story of youthful folly and idealism, particularly with regard to the female heroine, who is the focus of the entire last act of his production.
Perhaps now, as an experienced ballerina, I would have made the choice to let all of Sir Frederick’s coaching diffuse through my dancing so that I would have been more spontaneous, but I think that by doing exactly what he wanted, I received the finest balletic education possible from a master.
Macaulay, A. (1985), ‘Ashton Amid the Alien Corn,’ Dance Theatre Journal Winter 1985,