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|About the Change|
The distinguished British theatre director Declan Donnellan has staged the Bolshoi Ballet’s new production of Romeo and Juliet.
by Brendan McCarthy
Declan Donnellan has a reckless gene. He has faith not so much in his own creativity as in his sense of curiosity. Creativity follows curiosity, he argues, and with good reason. He first became fascinated with theatre when he was 16. He describes an ‘epiphanic moment’ after seeing Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. MacMillan’s choreography had a powerful impact and he repeatedly returned to see it. “That experience gave me a sense of release – for which I am terribly grateful – and I always wanted to return to that moment and to engage with it in a more vital way.” Now he has.
Along with his partner, the designer Nick Ormerod, Donnellan directs the ensemble Cheek by Jowl, celebrated for its innovative approach to the theatre classics and - in particular - to Shakespeare. It was scarcely a surprise when the Bolshoi invited him to Moscow to direct an opera; Donnellan has often worked in Russia and his work is greatly respected there. Also, the director’s path from the theatre to the opera stage is a well-trodden one. What surprised the Bolshoi was Donnellan’s reply – that he would rather direct a ballet. Astonishingly, it agreed. Within months Donnellan was rehearsing dancers in his own Romeo and Juliet. Russian critics applauded the Moscow premiere last December, Kommersant praising its ‘penetrating intensity’, with Izvestia noting that the dancers “cast away their pointe shoes and achieved real freedom.” This week London audiences can judge for themselves at the Royal Opera House.
© John Haynes
With Nick Ormerod now also on board, the team began to unpack the Prokofiev score - often unspecific in dramatic terms - and to create the mise-en-scène. “We went right back to the mythic heart of Shakespeare’s text. Not all the stories are choreographic. But we tried to get at the heart of the story in a way different to telling it through pantomime.” The image of the balcony is central to Donnellan’s Romeo and Juliet. He is struck by the fact that this great emblem of romantic love is one, not of intimacy, but rather of separation. Donnellan gives the balcony human form – with the corps de ballet representing the forces that divide the lovers. Deep in the human condition, says Donnellan, is the notion that there is no love without separation, “and we don’t like that.”
Donnellan did have some problems at the Bolshoi, which mirrored those experienced by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer when they staged their Rite of Spring reconstruction for the Kirov Ballet. The Bolshoi dancers were cast in as many as twenty-eight ballets a month. Co-ordinating the Romeo rehearsals with the dancers’ other commitments was “really quite hairy”. Donnellan does not speak much Russian, but he soon learnt to recognise an ominous word - ksojelenio – ‘unfortunately’: invariably the prelude to a new setback. Nonetheless, rehearsals were relatively smooth, even if dancers arrived in studio wearing costumes from Don Quixote or La Sylphide. Importantly, the artistic path was clear. “The company was so up for change that I had no persuading to do. It was important I was not an expert. That was my strength. I did not know what traditions I was throwing over. It was natural to me that girls would not dance on pointe.”
Anastasia Meskova as Juliet
© I. Zaharkin
Maria Alexandrova, who will dance the role of Juliet at Monday night’s opening at the Royal Opera House, told Dance Europe magazine that “sometimes we even felt that we don’t have enough steps, we have to express emotions, and the scene is continuing, but we don’t have enough steps.” Recalling WB Yeats’ question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Donnellan asserts that the dance exists not in the body, but also in the imagination. While Juliet may not move, “that forward energy is still inside her when she sees the terrible outcome of having to marry Paris and not be with Romeo.”
I asked Donnellan if he directed his dancing Juliet rather as he would have done an actress working with Shakespeare’s text. “Not really”, he answered, “ I spent a lot of time getting people to see things rather than to show things. That matters, because it is very important in theatre that what you see is more important than what you show.” He was powerfully struck as a teenager by Lynn Seymour’s portrayal of Juliet in MacMillan’s ballet; and how she sits at the bed while the music surges. “That is a wonderful moment in ballet when she just does not move. Of course we could not do that because it has already been done. And we have another solution to that moment.”
Donnellan believes in the Wagnerian concept of the gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork, and in theatre as a collaborative union of different art forms. In the twentieth century this belief was embraced by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Since he died, ballet has lapsed into autism, lacking in contact with the other forms. Donnellan finds it remarkable that although he had worked in the theatre for 25 years, he had met five ballet dancers in that time. Now, he says, he understands why. “Dancers actually do work harder than anyone else I’ve ever met. Lawyers work hard – so do teachers and nurses and doctors. But dancers work harder – and there is something intrinsically isolating about that.”
Last year, when Donnellan was rehearsing in Moscow, I asked several British choreographers if they would have been prepared to cede their leadership of the creative team for a new ballet to a theatre director. None would. “There is room for a dramaturge”, one told me (and the other choreographers agreed), “but if we had fisticuffs about something, I
Donnellan would not be drawn on questions about ‘the state of ballet’ or whether the art was ‘stuck’. But, he pointed out, many of the greatest theatre-creators have been humble enough to take things from the outside world - and this had also been true of Diaghilev and MacMillan. There was a danger for any art form that was too enclosed. “Various laws of physics show that circuits which are completely closed to outside energy die.”
I wondered if Donnellan might have preferred to work with contemporary dancers, less constrained by grammar. On the contrary. It is ballet’s highly specified language that attracts him, just as he is also drawn to another stylised form, French classical tragedy. “The cage is there to hold in - to give pressure to an animal instinct that wants to come out. I feel very much in ballet that you are not just watching an elegant move: that you are watching an animal moving in this way that the rule is generating something that’s bigger inside. And that’s fantastic.”
But a stylised form repels him when it is lifeless. A singer’s top C or top F may be technically faultless, but empty virtuosity is ‘boring’. “An artist’s virtuosity is only there in order for life to be able to pass through in an extraordinary way. That is what is great about great dancing – that you are in the presence of life; it just comes to you in a very stylised way. You do very often discover that when people can do these extraordinary things, that they often have the ability by grace to transcend them.”
The Bolshoi has asked him back. This week Donnellan will discuss a possible
new work with the company's artistic director Alexei Ratmansky ("It is nice
to have another career!") He has no set ideas about what that new work might
be. First, he says, he needs research time with dancers, and that might be
more practical in London.
© I. Zaharkin