Romeo & Juliet: Music as Storyteller

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Composer, violinist, violist, and program annotator, Matt Naughtin, has been the Music Librarian at San Francisco Ballet since 1997. He is also the author of Ballet Music: A Handbook, which describes the daily routine of a modern ballet company, outlines the respective roles of the conductor, company pianist and music librarian, and examines the complete process of putting a dance performance on stage.

 

Someone recently told me that Romeo & Juliet‘s music tells the story of Shakespeare’s play so clearly that they hardly needed to see the performers on stage. So how did Prokofiev bring the complex action and emotions of the play so vividly to life? First, he did it without resorting to what stage and motion picture producers call ‘Mickey Mousing’—the tight synchronization of music to visual action. There are a few instances when the dancers have to ‘hit a beat’ in the music, such as when Tybalt fatally stabs Mercutio, but for the most part the music runs seamlessly and fluidly under the action on stage, forcing it forward in a relentless dramatic flow. Prokofiev achieves this musical momentum by the subtle and brilliant stitching together of several key melodic motives that return again and again to not only accompany the action on stage, but add depth to it by illuminating the character and emotions of the performers.

Prokofiev used several primary melodic elements as building blocks for his score, combining them in subtle ways to create a strong psychological underpinning for the action on stage. The first themes we hear in the Prelude as the ballet begins return many times in various scenes, and I think of them as the ‘Young Love’ motives, showing us the two teen-aged protagonists in all their naïve, open-hearted freshness.

 

Juliet’s Theme

Many of the characters in the story have their own musical signature themes. Juliet’s long-suffering nurse and Friar Laurence, whose well-intentioned meddling results in tragedy both have their own music, as does Romeo. Juliet’s music is gay and playful. She’s 13 years old and wistfully dreaming of someday meeting her true love. Here is her musical portrait.

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Romeo & Juliet: Notes on the Music

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What composer worth his salt wouldn’t jump at the chance to write a ballet score based on the most popular love story of all time, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Well…Sergei Prokofiev for one. The play had already been used in 14 operas, Berlioz had made a dramatic symphony of it and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was a familiar staple of concert programs. So who needed another Romeo score—particularly a ballet?

Prokofiev couldn’t envision how the complex psychology of the drama could be conveyed through fouettes, jetés and arabesques. Sergei Radlov, director of the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet, sat down with the composer and outlined a scenario. Prokofiev warmed to the idea, took copious notes on the details of the plot and the interaction between stage and orchestra, and went to work. The audacious, groundbreaking score he wrote was unlike anything Russian choreographers had ever encountered, and they rejected it, pronouncing it ‘unsuitable for dancing.’ One of the objections was the fact that the composer changed the story, substituting a happy ending for the familiar tragic denouement. Prokofiev’s rationale for having Romeo and Juliet survive and live happily ever after: ‘living people can dance, but the dying can hardly be expected to.’

San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

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SF Ballet School Alumni Spotlight: Daniel Deivison-Oliveira

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The San Francisco Ballet School recently interviewed School alumni Daniel Deivison-Oliveira for a short Q&A. Deivison-Oliveira is a SF Ballet Company Soloist and a SFBS Trainee Program alum. Daniel was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and trained at Cia Brasileira de Ballet, Ballet da Cidade de Niteroi, Escula de Danças Maria Olenewa, Petite Danse School, and San Francisco Ballet School. He joined the Company as a member of the corps de ballet in 2005 and was promoted to soloist in 2011.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Concerto Grosso. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Concerto Grosso. (© Erik Tomasson)

How did you find your way to San Francisco Ballet School?

In 2003 I participated in the Youth America Grand Prix competition in New York City, and I was identified by Gloria Govrin (then School Associate Director) as a candidate to come to SFBS. I did not immediately accept the offer, and in fact, I left ballet for a year. After re-examining my career objectives, I got in touch with Ms. Govrin and she extended another offer in 2004. I was excited about the new Trainee Program that she described, and I am happy that I was a part of the program in its very first year.

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SF Ballet School Faculty Spotlight: Pollyana Ribeiro

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We sat down with Pollyana Ribeiro this month to get some insider information on her first year of teaching full time at San Francisco Ballet School. Below are some reflections on her year at the School:

Pollyana Ribeiro (© Michael J Seamans)

Pollyana Ribeiro (© Michael J Seamans)

“I love working with Patrick again—I worked with him for a long time in Boston (we were both principal dancers and partners)—I’ve known him for 20 years. I like the atmosphere and work environment at SFBS; it’s very positive and healthy. I have a wonderful and varied class schedule— from beginners to advanced students.

“The biggest challenge—and pleasure—has been working with the Community Scholarship Program students. I have 25 little girls, and the majority had absolutely no experience with dance and ballet when they started in September. The class is very basic—teaching the girls rudimentary steps and positions. They were gangly and floppy when we first started. Now their ballet vocabulary has been greatly expanded, and they can stand up in proper positions, point their feet (most of the time!), and they are much more musical.   They have improved so much since day one. I love their spirit. They are like little sponges—absorbing all of the information. The girls really want to be in class, and they show their love of ballet. Read More »

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