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About the Change

Declan Donnellan,

Theatre Director

Crossing Boundaries

The distinguished British theatre director Declan Donnellan has staged the Bolshoi Ballet’s new production of Romeo and Juliet.

by Brendan McCarthy

© John Haynes

Bolshoi 'Romeo' reviews

Bolshoi reviews

Bolshoi in London page

There are two great choreographic texts of Romeo and Juliet, MacMillan’s and Lavrovsky’s. They leave powerful afterimages. For a choreographer to propose a new text of the work is an act of considerable self-belief. But for a theatre director - with no dance experience - to undertake a dance version, requires confidence of an altogether higher order. Yet that is what Declan Donnellan has done – and on the Bolshoi stage where Leonid Lavrovksy memorably brought Prokofiev’s score to life.

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.

Declan Donnellan
© John Haynes

Donnellan had few preconceptions about how he might work with his cast. It was not even clear to him at first that he would need a choreographer and he imagined that he and the dancers might work together to generate sequences of movement. A choreographer, if one were needed at all, might work in the background. But Donnellan soon changed his mind, and decided to work with the Moldovan choreographer, Radu Poklitaru. While Donnellan was the unquestioned creative leader, their relationship seems to have been relatively lacking in friction. He was slightly taken aback by his first contact with the Bolshoi dancers. Whenever Donnellan starts rehearsals with a new cast, work begins with warm-up games and exercises, with the participants told to run around the studio, touching walls, to raise their energy levels (“even Claudio Abbado has done it.”). But this time the dancers froze. Clearly Donnellan needed another approach. Instead he asked Poklitaru to give the dancers clear precise movements, which the dancers could then change as their confidence grew. “Ten minutes afterwards the sun came out and it was all absolutely delightful.”

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

As the rehearsals continued, Donnellan discussed the shape of the narrative with Poklitaru, as well as the characters and their stories. They sketched scenes with dancers, Donnellan watching as Poklitaru began to choreograph, and intervening every so often with his own ideas. He frequently asked if something could be ‘simpler’ or ‘stiller’. This meant asking the dancers to work counter-intuitively. “Dancers love moving in the way that actors love acting”, he told me. “But often the most powerful theatre can be when the actor stops acting or when the dancer stops dancing. Stillness can be incredibly powerful.”

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

Radu Poklitaru, the R&J choreographer
© I. Zaharkin

would have the final say. I feel that choreographing ballets is the same as a director directing a play. I should be in charge and I should be responsible.” Donnellan was sympathetic to this view – he accepted that it was different for a choreographer to yield. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, Radu Poklitaru had been “extraordinarily generous”. But, he argued, a long narrative ballet was a particular case: to dramaturge such a work was a very specialist skill.

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.

Declan Donnellan
© I. Zaharkin

There is a further practical question – one of time. Donnellan has three productions on the road. His ensemble, Cheek by Jowl (“one of the ten great theatre companies in the world", according to Time Magazine), is performing Othello in Hong Kong this week and then moves to Australia. There is also a production of Nicholas Erdman’s The Mandate for the National Theatre, and shortly Donnellan will return to Russia (to a dacha in a pine forest near Moscow) to begin work on a new production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. He loves Russia. “I don’t feel so eccentric there and my priorities are very shared.” He finds in Russia a ready acceptance of his vision of the theatre as telling deep truths about human intimacy and what people share in common. As Donnellan’s dancing Juliet, Maria Alexandrova, explains, “"With every performance of Juliet, I feel like I've led a complete life, that I'm actually born and then at the end I actually die."

Brendan McCarthy is arts editor of The Tablet, where a version of this article also appears

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