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By Patricia Boccadoro

BORDEAUX, FRANCE, 23 APRIL 2009 - From the 18th century onwards, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a work based on the writings of Ovid* in the 1st century B.C., has inspired countless choreographers. While the earliest recorded staging was by Luzzi in Venice in 1785, it was not followed by a choreographed version until Ivo Psota in Czechoslovakia discovered the play in 1938, setting his ballet to Prokofiev's powerful score. However, the list of choreographers seduced by the story probably began two years later with Lavrovsky in Russia whose realistic and highly successful production remained a work of reference for many years.

Vinogradov staged a new production for Novosibirsk in 1967, but by then, Western audiences had seen the popular and much-loved versions by Frederick Ashton, in 1955, John Cranko, in 1958, and Kenneth MacMillan, in 1965. Rudolf Nureyev created his own ballet in 1977, a production he reworked for the Paris Opera in 1984. and since then, such differing personalities as Rudi van Danzig, Tiit Harm, Angelin Preljocaj, and Christophe Maillot , to name but a few, have been inspired by the story. Even Antony Tudor, back in 1943, created a one-act version, not to mention a poignant pas de deux by Maurice Béjart in 1966, the latter setting his choreography to the score by Berlioz.

Capulet Ball from Romeo and Juliet
Ballet de l'Opéra de Bordeaux
Choreography: Charles Jude
Photo: Sigrid Colomyes

I asked Charles Jude, the highly respected director of the Ballet de l'Opéra de Bordeaux since 1996, why he'd created yet another version, and why it had been so long in coming.

"Shakespeare's work is pure theatre, and with Prokofiev's stunning score, it was just too tempting not to make my own version which I'd dreamed of for so many years," he explained. "I've danced Romeo so many times, not only in Rudolf Nureyev's ballet, but in the stagings of Cranko, Grigorovitch, Biaggi and Tiit Harm as well. I also identified totally with Tybalt, one of my favourite roles. I've always adored strong characters such as Abderam, Onegin, and Ivan the Terrible and love stories of passion and drama, where I can escape from traditional choreography to theatrical drama. I used to imagine how I'd stage it, planning that Juliet would awaken before Romeo died so they would see each other again for a last time to heighten the dramatic intensity, but when I became the director of Bordeaux, I didn't see myself as a choreographer, nor did I have the dancers capable of interpreting such a work."

"Above all," he continued, "there is this extraordinary score by Prokofiev which translates Shakespeare into music. Romeo and Juliet is not a fairy-story like Sleeping Beauty or Nutcracker, but a tragedy of love and hate. It was a total challenge to present the Italy of the time, festive and joyous, but with the underlying, seething hatred between the rival families. Reading the play brings you to tears and I wanted to bring the same emotion to dance. I wanted to move the audience even when they know how the story ends."

Emmanuelle Grizot as Juliet
Choreography: Charles Jude
Ballet de l'Opéra de Bordeaux
Photo: Sigrid Colomyes

"When one listens very carefully to the score," he explained, "you realize that Prokofiev attributed different musical themes to each character. The leitmotiv are repeated and transformed within the orchestration. You know when it's Romeo, Juliet or Tybalt, and furthermore, the state of mind they are in becomes obvious. Consequently, I adapted the style of dance to suit each personality. Romeo is dreamy and poetical, and thus I created classical or neo-classical steps for him, whereas I saw my choreography for Tybalt as contemporary, making it more of a character role. Mercutio is frivolous and gay, amused by everything and anything, and his steps are therefore more jerky and abrupt, with high leaps but quick, blunted gestures. Juliet, who knows exactly what she wants, is basically classical, while I put the nurse, a second mother, on point and then on her heels. She's also a comic figure, trying Juliet's dress on. The father, too, is a strong figure, and his movements are very determined, large and authoritative. "

Jude told me that on a more practical level, it took at least two and a half years of work to finalise the choreography, costumes and sets, the central square where most of the action takes place being a tribute to his friend, Rudolf Nureyev, who would have celebrated his 71st birthday this month.

"We were on vacation on the Greek island of Rhodes and as we strolled into the main square, with the statue in the centre and the roads spiraling out, rather like an open-air theatre, Rudolf suddenly stopped in his tracks and announced that he wanted to film his Romeo and Juliet there. Well, I couldn't help him out and fly the Paris Opéra and film crew to Rhodes, but what I could do, many years later, was ask my designer, Philippe Miesch, to reproduce the Rhodes square on the Bordeaux stage."

Which was done with great success. All the crowd scenes, including the Capulet ball were extremely well-handled. The ballroom scene, powerful and elegant, was dominated by green and rich deep reds and shades of burgundy, in true Renaissance style. Juliet, beautifully interpreted by Emmanuelle Grizot, was light and fresh in a pale peach-coloured dress, and the moment she stopped and 'froze' as she spotted Romeo was one of the most natural and convincing moments possible. This was indeed love at first sight and no wonder, for her Romeo was the irresistibly handsome Spanish-born dancer, Igor Yebra, with whom every girl in the company must be in love with, as well as half the administration and town of Bordeaux! Yebra is a most delightful young man, onstage and off, and made an ideal Romeo. He was Romeo.

Igor Yebra as Romeo
Choreography: Charles Jude
Ballet de l'Opéra de Bordeaux
Photo: Sigrid Colomyes

Mercutio, too, was superbly interpreted by the spirited Kirov trained dancer, Roman Mikhalev who infused the action with gaiety, and excelled in the extremely complex swordfights, particularly with Tybalt, forcefully interpreted by Alvaro Rodriguez Pinera, a youngster still in the corps de ballet, but perhaps for not much longer.

Jude judiciously set the scene and told the story in the first act, and then ran act two and three together so that the dramatic thread of the work remained unbroken, going straight to the heart of the drama. Emphasis is on the lovers' tragedy when Romeo takes poison, but fails to hide the fact that he is dying when Juliet awakens. They dance together in a final, heart-rending pas de deux before he dies and Juliet kills herself for him.

"I read Shakespeare's text from A to Z, and saw every film on the subject imaginable, before taking what I needed to stage a drama", said Jude. "I've known what was interesting for years, and felt encouraged by Shakespeare himself, who, after all, didn't invent the story and never even visited Italy!"

A second cast was interpreted by guest artist, Guiseppe Piccone, and Yumi Aizawa.

The Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine was conducted by Ermanno Florio

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe . She is the dance editor for and last wrote on the danseuse étoile and choreographer Agnès Letestu.

*Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC - AD 17 or 18), known as Ovid, achieved the peak of fame and success 2,000 years ago with his extraordinary books, The Art of Love and Metamorphoses. In The Art of Love, he wrote about famous lovers of past generations; in Metamorphoses, he recounted the history of the world, beginning with chaos and leading up to the time of disillusioniment over the loss of the republic due to Julius Caesar's becoming the first emperor. The Emperor Augustus, who followed Caesar as second emperor, had a daughter, Julia, who became infamous for her public sexuality. Her father was outraged, even though he was secretly as sexually active as his daughter. He exiled Julia and asked Ovid to withdraw his books, which Augustus claimed had led Julia into her shameful life. Ovid refused and slowly, Augustus increased his pressure until finally he forced Ovid also into exile without his family, books or wealth, to die years later in a little fishing village near the Black Sea.

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