Have you heard the story of Romeo and the gorilla? Christopher Gable was the dancer on whom Kenneth MacMillan created the role of Romeo for the Royal Ballet in 1965. MacMillan planned a harrowing final scene; the distraught hero, he said, should attempt desperately to revive Juliet, but when his efforts failed, she becomes no more than a piece of meat as his hopes fade. Gable was reminded of a gorilla in London Zoo, whose baby had just died. She refused to give the body up to the keepers, but instead dragged it around with her, bumping it over the floor and into the walls. This image of numbed connection became Gable's touchstone for his own performance.
It's hard to imagine many similar acts of naturalistic creativity taking place in ballet. I thought of this last week, when preparing a pre-performance event for the BBC Philharmonic. They performed (with scalding energy, under conductor Yutaka Sado) a selection from Prokofiev's score for Romeo and Juliet (1935), having previously played Tchaikovsky's luxurious score for The Sleeping Beauty (1890). We discussed how Russian ballet had developed between these two landmark works, and part of the answer was in the dramatic demands.
How does drama meet ballet? There's more after the click:
Some relatively forgotten figures are an important part of this story. Alexander Gorsky, for example, who left the Maryinksy in St Petersburg in 1901 to work at the Bolshoi, in part because he was fascinated by Stanislavsky's work at the Moscow Arts Theatre. Gorsky wanted individuals to surge through an ensemble rather than attain a sense of replicant grace. He created a heart-stirring finale for Gudule's Daughter (his version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame) which sounds close cousin to a Lillian Gish movie. And his Giselle stripped away any Romantic wispiness. He asked his ballerina to mimic real madness and submit to a raving, legs splayed, unpicturesque death. Ballet as we know it cannot bear so much reality.
Another fascinating character is Sergei Radlov, Prokofiev's collaborator on the scenario for Romeo and Juliet. (Their first version had a happy - or at least, death-defying - ending, which was slapped down by the Soviet powers that be, but resurrected last year by Mark Morris).
Radlov's was a maverick talent. A student of Meyerhold, he developed a krazy, kinetic komic style of popular theatre. In the brief window of licensed artistic experiment following the 1917 Revolution, he drew on circus skills, silent film comedy and commedia zaniness to fashion partly improvised shows. Even the titles are appetising - who wouldn't want to see The Corpse's Bride or The Monkey Informer? And to see them, moreover, on a stage which was divided into nine separate boxes so that scenes could be simultaneously performed or move from one to the other with the speed of a cinematic cross-cut.
Radlov was nonetheless strictured for devising a free-flowing satire untethered to ideological correctness. He tried to behave, producing a play by Gorky about a buck-passing bureaucrat who is still reluctant to actually do anything when the ceiling falls in on him. But he then began exploring classic drama - initially comic texts by Moliere, and then Shakespeare's tragedies. His 1935 King Lear for Moscow's pioneering Yiddish Theatre was considered a triumph of plangent constructivism - but the first wave of Stalinist purges pushed him from his post in Leningrad, and for the next 20 years he worked outside Russia's major cities. Nonetheless, he sounds an extraordinary director, and some of his leaps of creative energy must have influenced Prokofiev's score, which is heartfelt one minute, foreboding the next, often fleetly, unexpectedly sarcastic.
The Kirov's first Juliet, Galina Ulanova, was also a Stanislavsky disciple, and brought that commitment to her acting as well as her dancing. But I realise I don't know much about how today's dancers learn to act. Does it represent a significant part of the ballet school syllabus? Do dancers develop what they need for a particular production? If anyone could enlighten me, I'd be grateful. And in the meantime - what is the greatest acting performance you have seen at the ballet?
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