Musings from a Dance Scholar: The Musical World of Romeo and Juliet


Sergei Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet is one of the most luscious and dramatically exciting dance scores of the twentieth century.  It has tempted many a choreographer. From the very first production created by choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky in 1940 in Soviet Russia for the legendary ballerina Galina Ulanova, to the British choreographers Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan to Rudolph Nureyev and many others including, of course, Helgi Tomasson’s beautiful production for San Francisco.  Most recently Mark Morris choreographed a Romeo and Juliet to newly discovered orchestrations of parts of the score, discovered more than a half century after the original production, in Russian archives by Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison!

Prokofiev very much followed in the tradition of Tchaikovsky’s scores for Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Nutcracker in writing music that is meant to interact with, and enhance, just about every moment of the dance drama unfolding on stage.  The music for Juliet charts her growth from child to a woman forced to grow up too fast: from the lively, playful pizzicato theme that introduces young Juliet teasing her nurse, to the lyrical evocation of first love in the Balcony scene and the raw passion of the bedroom pas de deux in which the lovers are forced to part after their wedding night.

There is too, the heaving and churning musical power of the scene when Juliet, makes her decision to take the vial of sleeping potion (given her by Friar Laurence) without knowing whether she will be reunited with her beloved or wake-up alone only to die in the cold darkness of her family’s crypt.  You can actually chart the gradual effect of the potion as it spreads throughout her body—sending her staggering to her bed – as her legs begin to collapse under her. Perhaps most moving of all are the alternate states of terror, love, and pity evoked in the music for the final scene as Juliet in quick succession discovers her lover’s body, musters her courage to stab herself with his sword and finally, accompanied by Prokofiev’s gently rocking lullaby crawls pathetically towards Romeo’s corpse to try to cuddle with him one last time.  Bring your handkerchiefs.


SF Ballet in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet (© Erik Tomasson)


Beth Genné, Professor of Dance History and Art History at the University of Michigan specializes in twentieth-century American and British ballet as well as dance in the American film musical. She is interested in the synergy of dance, art and music and the historical context of the works she studies. She also has a special interest in George Balanchine and his relationship to popular as well as classical dance. She is the author of numerous articles as well as a book on the founder of the Royal Ballet, Dame Ninette de Valois.

Professor Genné was also a principal researcher for the George Balanchine Foundation’s project “Popular Balanchine, on Balanchine’s work in Hollywood. She organized the international symposium “From the Maryinsky to Manhattan: George Balanchine and the Transformation of American Dance” as well as being one of the few American scholars invited to present her research in Russia at the symposium Balanchine: Past, Present and Future at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Her next book to be published by Oxford University Press is a study of dance in the American Musical Film and the contributions of Balanchine, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly.




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