It is no secret that one of my favourite ballets is MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet. The last time the Royal Ballet performed it I saw three casts and I wrote a guest post about MacMillan’s choreography for A Younger Theatre. The Royal Ballet are reviving it again next month and I will be seeing it twice: once with my favourite pairing from last time, Cuthbertson & Bonelli, and once with a new pairing, Hamilton & Watson.
As I enjoy the ballet so much, I’ve decided to delve a bit deeper and analyse the piece. Alongside this post which discusses the ballet’s Pas de Deux, I’m also hoping to look at topics like the music and use of narrative devices in future posts. Hope you enjoy!
Pas de Deux in MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet
As Frymoyer () notes:
In the world onstage, balletic gesture reveals how Romeo and Juliet understand themselves and the world around them. Nowhere is this communication stronger than in the three central Pas de Deux where the lovers discover their love, and then experience the ultimate heartbreak.
Unlike more classical ballets, the Pas de Deux in Romeo & Juliet do not follow the standard structure of adage/alegro, variations and coda. This is partly due to the musical characteristics of these segments:
Rapid shifts of meter, tempo, harmonic and rhythmic texture, and affect give the music a spontaneous nature that presents to us the psyche of the protagonists ().
The Pas de Deux are so important, in fact, that Prokofiev gives them the central `Romeo & Juliet Theme’, the
musical centerpiece of the ballet (). As Bennett notes, the theme contains
not only the rhapsodic ecstasy of the love dance, but also the unspeakable tragedy of death (), something MacMillan’s choreography also reflects over the three Pas de Deux.
Pas de Deux 1: Balcony Scene
I have chosen my favourite pairing to showcase the stunning Balcony Pas de Deux – Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli of the Royal Ballet
The first Act of the ballet culminates in perhaps the most preminant scene in all theatre, Romeo confessing his love to Juliet on her balcony. As the scene opens, we see Juliet standing on her balcony and Romeo’s theme is played on an organ as she wistfully dreams of love and marraige.
Following Romeo’s stealthy entrance, Juliet almost skips down the stairs, barely containing her excitement at seeing her new love. Her innocence is reaffirmed with her placing Romeo’s hand on her breast to feel her beating heart, and Romeo tells her to wait as he declares his love (2:25).
Romeo’s musical theme reappears in an altered form to form Romeo’s variation () which starts very grounded, with a string of renverses, attitude turns and saute de basques. The speed of MacMillan’s choreography seems to reveal Romeo’s excitement and he is only paused on the approach of Juliet. Juliet lays her head on his hand (3:10), which seems a choreographic nod to the lines:
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand
O that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
This is followed by a combination almost entirely based around expansive leaps (acting almost as a reprise to the earlier section) – revealing a more expressive Romeo.
As Romeo’s theme culminates (3:35), Juliet opens her pirouette into arabesque with her arms wide as if opening her heart to the world. This is one of my favourite parts in any ballet (it gives me goosebumps every time!) and signals the start of the “Love Dance”, whose theme has
emerged out of the Romeo theme like a butterfly from a chrysalis (). As the pair dance together the fluidity of the choreography speaks of their predestined love, something the dancers have to achieve to give this duet its potency.
The lovers present themselves to the world, unashamed of their love, in a slightly unusual promenade arabesque (with Juliet’s inside leg raised) finishing facing the audience asking for acceptance from society (4:22). The lovers proceed to open up to each other with arabesques, developpes and lifts all more expansive than the last.
As Romeo falls deeper in love, with a gesture to place his head on Juliet’s dress, she flits away to pose in the opening expansive arabesque that started the dance, trusting Romeo to come and catch her (5:10). Once more asking for acceptance from society, Romeo lifts Juliet high above his head (5:25), perhaps as if to place her back in the safety of her balcony.
Giving Romeo the opportunity to fully express his love, Juliet suddenly worries for Romeo (5:45), checking for her family:
If they do see thee, they will murder thee (II.ii 74). She then runs back to Romeo who once again raises her high above him, in the iconic lift (5:50) that seems to echo his lines:
O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Juliet now gets a chance to show her love with a playful combination (6:15) almost mimicking Romeo’s earlier renverses and attitude pirouettes, before skipping her way around him delicately en pointe, a movement MacMillan uses to emphasise her childlike playfulness (contrasting her more stately walking when meeting Paris). Romeo supports her in a sequence of arabesques (6:50) – as she literally falls into his arms declaring her love.
Finishing with two even more trusting lifts (7:20), the couple take a moment to truly see each other. Romeo lifts Juliet onto pointe and, well, Juliet’s slightly shocked expressions says it all. With a final touch of their reaching arms, the curtains close on one of the most beautiful pas de deux in ballet. I really feel that MacMillan got the perfect balance between telling the story through the dancing, but not sacrificing the beauty or flow to do so.
Pas de Deux 2: Bedroom Scene
The Bedroom Pas de Deux is here performed by one of the most famous Romeo and Juliet partnerships: Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta at The Royal Ballet.
As the curtain rises on Act III, the newly married lovers are in Juliet’s bed (the Capulet’s orchard in the play). The bedroom Pas de Deux is a clever counterpart to the Balcony Pas de Deux: motifs reappear from Act I but in distorted forms to display the change in the lovers’ relationship. The Pas de Deux as a whole is a lot more physical and extreme – as if to sacrifice beauty for emotion, reflecting Romeo and Juliet’s acceptance of the harsh reality of their love.
Romeo rises and, thinking on the fatal actions of the previous day, dons his cloak. In a mirroring of the balcony scene he intends to hide from Juliet, only this time to sneak away. As Romeo looks out at the rising sun, foretelling his departure to Mantua, Juliet wakes and begs him to stay:
Therefore stay yet; thou need’st not to be gone. (III.v 16)
Reminding Romeo of their love (both physical and emotional) Juliet recalls movements from the Balcony Pas de Deux, though slightly altered. Instead of the open, expansive arms in arabesque, Juliet now reaches forward as if yearning to escape the nightmare she has found herself in (1:50). Romeo drags her back and embraces her to remind her of his devotion. As he lowers her to the side, she turns away from him and the overhead lift becomes less ecstatic and more a sign of resignation to fate (2:18).
The following sequence references the previous love duet, but the feel of the piece has completely changed. Juliet is restrained, and Romeo seems to become the instigator of the dance. As he spins her you feel like Juliet is losing her grip on the situation, reflected in her dejected and resigned movements. She has accepted the impossibility of their love, shown in the agonising reprise of the previously defiant arabesque pose at 3:26 – both lovers accepting their doomed fate.
Romeo lifts Juliet high above his head (3:52) once again, but this gesture is reminiscant of a crucifixion, foretelling Juliet’s coming death. As she drops into his arms she appears lifeless before escaping his grasp to present herself to the unyielding morning sun, as if a sacrifice against the dawn. Romeo pulls her back (4:07), spinning her into his arms with great force.
As Juliet pleads once more with Romeo, she falls at his feet (4:35) – a role reversal from the Love Dance. Echoing the motif from Act I, Juliet falls from arabesque into Romeo’s arms (4:45). The movement is much more extreme now, Romeo catches her whilst standing before dropping to the knee, Juliet’s previously low arabesque is nearer vertical, and she visibly strains against him. This is all evidence of how much more is at stake now; their heightened emotions are pushing at the boundaries of their bodies and hearts.
We hear the light hearted theme that Juliet skipped away from Romeo to in Act I, but she now leaps through an entrelace (5:00), and runs to the corner where she stops in shock. As she breaks down, she opens herself up but this time Romeo stifles her movement to pull her away. She reaches to escape in a series of arabesques (5:15) and we cannot help but feel her torn anguish as she collapses to the floor.
Just as with the Balcony Pas de Deux, we finish with a kiss and an outstretched arm: the first almost pitying, and the latter unreciprocated as Juliet bids Romeo farewell:
O, now be gone; more light and light it grows. (III.v 35)
Pas de Deux 3: Death Scene
The final scene of the ballet is here performed at La Scala by the Prima Ballerina Assoluta Alessandra Ferri and Angel Corella.
The final scene of the ballet takes place in the Capulet Crypt. The music pronounces the stately elegiac ‘Death Theme’ as Juliet lies on her bier. With Paris mourning by her side, Romeo appears in the shadows, but makes no attempt to hide as he stabs Paris (2:55).
Romeo emulates the start of Act III as he climbs next to Juliet. He drags the unconscious body across the stage, approaching the corners as if to emulate their triumphant pose from Act I (3:15). As  discusses, choreography is the lovers’ primary way to communicate so Romeo shares his grief through it.
Romeo tries to echo the final triumphant lifts of the balcony pas de deux (3:30) as we hear the love theme emerge from the deathly orchestrations. As the music resumes it’s funereal theme, Romeo places Juliet back on her bier and takes the poison (5:30).
As Juliet wakes she discovers Romeo lying dead and, reverting to her childlike naiveity, trys to shake him awake (7:00). She futilely tries to pick him up, as if for one more dance.
At this point
Prokofiev renders the music “undanceable” () and MacMillan leaves Juliet rooted to the spot as
orchestral sound sweeps over her, negating the visual space and “envoicing” rather than “dancing” her grief (). This is the final proof that all is lost for Juliet – even her ability to express herself through her movements has been taken from her.
She screams as the music crescendos (7:20):
strings shriek up and down two octaves, great screams of anguish that reach heights that our nerves and ears can scarcely bear (). She rushes to pick up the dagger from Paris, and delivers her own fatal blow (7:45). Collapsing on the bed she drags herself towards her lover, and stretches out a hand to him, just as at the end of the balcony scene, when their love was still pure and innocent, and the end of the bedroom scene, where their ending was foretold.
The death scene is really beyond words, and usually renders me completely speechless at performances. The quotation of movements from earlier in the ballet just makes it all the more poignant and affecting. A fitting end to the most tragic of love stories.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this post – it took some effort to research but I’ve found it fascinating to delve deeper into one of my favourite ballets. I’m hoping to do some more “in depth” posts on ballets (not just Romeo & Juliet), the history of ballet, and technique. Let me know if there is anything you think I should cover – just pop a comment on this post.
Until next time, keep on dancing!
 Bennett, Karen. Star-Cross’d Lovers: Shakespeare and Prokofiev’s `pas de deux’ in Romeo and Juliet. The Cambridge Quaterly, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2003.
 Frymoyer, Johanna. Ballet as the Subject’s Speech: Defining Classical Gesture in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Proc. of Sound Moves Conference, 2005.