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Nureyev in the role of Romeo

Even though the only version of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet choreographed by Leonid Lavrovski, was part of the Kirov’s repertoire when Rudolf Nureyev danced there, he did not get the chance to perform it.

Rudolf Noureev et Margot Fonteyn - 1965 - Kenneth MacMillan - V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Theatre Collections

It was only in 1965 that he danced the part in a choreography by MacMillan. In fact, the British choreographer designed the ballet for his favourite ballerina, Lynn Seymour (Juliet) and for Christopher Gable (Romeo). But just a few days before the première, the management of the Royal Ballet imposed the most famous couple of the time! Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, whom everyone wanted to see dancing and who guaranteed a ballet’s success. We must acknowledge that Rudolf Nureyev made a host of enemies in the Royal Ballet and his talent overshadowed a whole generation of remarkable dancers who never enjoyed the popularity or the same publicity as the young Kirov renegade, who became the regular partner of the Royal Ballet’s most brilliant star.

The first performance of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet on February 9th 1965 was applauded by the audience for 40 minutes in spite of the fact that Nureyev was recovering from an injury and danced with a bandaged leg. “Even with one leg, Mr. Rudolf Nureyev dances better than others with two legs!” wrote the enthusiastic critic at the “Times”. In spite of the fact that certain journalists criticised Nureyev’s over-blonde hair, most of the Press was excellent and Nureyev “captivated the public as usual”.

MacMillan’s production was accepted as one of the repertoire’s great classics and the couple continued to star both in London and in New York. Their performance was magnificently filmed by Paul Czinner in 1966. In 1990, Rudolf Nureyev came back to dance Romeo and Juliet for the last time at Covent Garden, but in the role of Mercutio, alongside Sylvie Guillem and Jonathan Cope, for a gala given in homage to – and for the benefit of - Dame Margot Fonteyn, who was suffering from bone cancer which required extremely costly treatment. Princess Margaret and Lady Di were the first to applaud the great artiste, who – as dignified as ever – came onto the stage to take a final bow with her former partner in front of a crowd of admirers.

But Nureyev was not satisfied with simply performing MacMillan’s Romeo. He went on to choreograph his own version – far more complete from the musical point of view – which was tumultuous and impetuous, adding substance to the parts of Romeo (“Romeo is the story of a youth who becomes a man” , he explained); Tybalt and Mercutio, focussing on the popular scenes with the spectacular duels between Capulet and Montague or the angry or excited crowds. The première took place in 1977 at the London Coliseum and Nureyev partnered four Juliets in succession : Patricia Ruanne, Elisabetta Terabust, Eva Evdokimova and Lynn Seymour. It was this production that was performed in 1978 at the Palais des Sports in Paris, with the same Juliets alternating performances, in a décor by Ezio Frigerio with costumes by Franca Squarciapino. Nureyev later staged his ballet at La Scala in Milan in 1980, with costumes and décor by Ezio Frigerio and Mauro Pagano, partnering Carla Fracci as Juliet.

The choreographer filmed the performance himself for Italian television. As well as Nureyev and Carla Fracci, the cast included a third extraordinary star: Margot Fonteyn as Lady Capulet, unequalled in her despair at the death of her son Tybalt, who died at the hands of Romeo. It was this production – re-worked by Nureyev when he was the Director of the Paris Opera Ballet – that was performed at the Palais Garnier in December 1984 by Monique Loudières, Patrick Dupont, Cyril Atanassoff, Jean-Pierre Franchetti, Laurent Hilaire and Yvette Chauviré (Lady Capulet). Nureyev sometimes danced the part of Romeo and sometimes Mercutio.

In 1991, Rudolf Nureyev – whose contract as Director had not been renewed two years earlier – was asked to stage his “Romeo and Juliet” at the Palais Garnier. He was a great detector of talent and he cast the soloist, Nicolas Le Riche as Mercutio. Realising this young dancer’s full potential, he taught him the role of Romeo, which he then danced alongside Claude de Vulpian at the matinee five days later, on December 19th . The performance was a great success. Nicolas Le Riche is the last Principal Dancer “launched” at the Paris Opera by Rudolf Nureyev. Towards the end of his life, already seriously marked by his illness, Rudolf Nureyev conducted Prokofiev’s score himself at the head of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, for a historic performance of « Romeo and Juliet » at the Lincoln Center in New York on May 6th 1992, with Sylvie Guillem and Laurent Hilaire. It was his penultimate public performance and it was crowned with success. R.S.

Musique : Sergueï Prokofiev

Chorégraphie : Kenneth MacMillan, Rudolf Noureev

Learn more After Nureyev’s death, the ballet was performed by the Opera Bastille in 1995, with new décors by Ezio Frigerio and it was filmed and recorded on DVD with Monique Loudières, Manuel Legris, Charles Jude (Tybalt) and Lionel Delanoë (Mercutio). The orchestra was conducted by Vello Pähn, the young Estonian conductor recruited by Nureyev in 1988.