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Dancer’s Dream: The Great Ballets of Rudolf Nureyev:
Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Romeo and Juliet (1935)
Film/video documentary production (1999) directed by François Roussillon.
Colour, except for historical images and footage.
The Paris National Opera ballet Company (1995)
French National Opera Orchestra conducted by Vello Pähn
Narrated by Elisabeth Maurin, Juliet.
Manuel Legris, Romeo; Kader Belarbi, Tybalt; Lionel Delanoë, Mercutio.
Subtitles: English, German, Spanish, Italian
Notes in English, Deutsch and Français. No photographs.
PCM 2.0 Stereo. PAL 16:9 Disk Format: DVD 9 All Regions

This documentary film is about one third talking heads (live colour video), one third ballet rehearsal (live colour video), with the rest snippets from live staged performances (colour film) and background images and historical footage (B/W). All the heads talk in French, and even when an interview is in English, there is a French voice-over. Sound and picture quality are excellent especially considering that in most scenes original SECAM video is converted to PAL for the disk and then to NTSC for my television. As a result of this, in one brief scene of a very detailed black and white engraving of the facade of a cathedral the screen was covered in a checkerboard of scintillating rainbow colours—well, it was kind of pretty.

The scenario is that in 1995 the Paris Opera ballet is mounting a revision of the Nureyev choreography of Romeo and Juliet, and the ballet tutors, Patricia Ruanne and Frederic Jahn, both of whom had danced with Nureyev in London and Paris, talk at great length about how the changes they are making are fully in the spirit of Nureyev and that their revered teacher would wholeheartedly approve of their production. There is some historical footage of previous productions, including a 1955 Bolshoi production from Russian newsreels. Curiously, they say that the Russian productions are not well documented: were they unaware of the 1955 Soviet colour film of virtually the whole ballet?

It is pointed out that Nureyev worked with Martha Graham in the USA before he began choreographing Romeo and Juliet. He then had a special interpreter go over Shapespeare’s play for him word by word to be sure he understood every word of the play perfectly. In particular, the characters of Mercutio and Tybalt were greatly strengthened and the crowd fight scenes were brought to frightening, dangerous realism. The energy of the dancing was brought to the fatigue point for the dancers: "Rudolf wanted a step for every note." "He thought like a film director, and in the crowd scenes wanted something going on in every corner of the stage." After working themselves to the point of collapse, the best the dancers could hope to obtain from Nureyev at the end of an exhausting day of rehearsals was, "See, you can do it!" Oddly, Romeo is shown to be a passive character with everyone else making decisions for him. While at first the English critics decried this as an error, eventually it was seen to be just what Shakespeare portrayed.

The Italian stage designer Ezio Frigerio mentioned that Nureyev wanted a realistic Italian Renaissance quality to the settings. "He had strong ideas of what he wanted from looking at Renaissance paintings, but I had to keep reminding him that I grew up with the Renaissance all around me every day." Also, "Death is always present in this work, and we had images of death before us in every scene."

The best part of the film is the rehearsals, watching these beautiful young healthy dancers working their way through the actions one at a time, with the tutor, then alone, then in ensemble, then together with props, than in costume on the stage, sometimes cutting from one to the other on a single beat. If ever you thought it was easy to be a ballet dancer, this film will knock that idea right out of you. And it also disposes forever of the image of the effeminate male dancer. These guys are as tough as they come, and in the fight scenes with swords and knives tremendous skill and care were required to prevent serious injury. What I question is whether this degree of violence was actually a realistic reflection of Shakespeare’s experience of Elizabethan London (as Nureyev claimed), or more likely the usual English tendency to portray almost every other people as more violent and irrational. I remember one critic commenting on what he thought was the excessive musical violence and passion in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet: "Yes, they were Italians, but not Persians!"

A most amazing revelation is that in this production the final tomb scene was never rehearsed, it was left to the dancers to improvise it, so it was different every time.

This film is not a good way to become acquainted with the ballet. It is assumed that the viewer is already familiar with the story, the music, and the dancing, preferably from one of the Nureyev choreographed versions. If you’re working on your French accent, this film could help you with that, as it presents you with 89 minutes of varied examples of Parisian French, English accented French, and Italian accented French.

Paul Shoemaker

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