As we look at Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, which opened the Mariinsky Ballet’s London season on Monday night, we see not only a celebrated production – and the first – of Prokofiev’s score, but also find a historical perspective on Russian ballet of real fascination. After a difficult gestation, the score was realised by the then Kirov Ballet in 1940. Soviet art of that time was so politically shackled that the staging was something of a “sport”. Yet its virtues – musical and choreographic – are so potent that its initial success was undeniable.
Then, of course, Galina Ulanova’s Juliet was of all-conquering grace – I count myself blessed to have seen her Juliet in 1956, a marvel of intensest feeling – and justified performance. But Lavrovsky’s theatrical energy, the music’s emotional momentum, the dedication shown by the artists of both Kirov/Mariinsky and, then, Moscow Bolshoi troupes, have made this impassioned work a good deal more than a grand survivor of a crucial era in Soviet art.
There are undeniable longueurs owed to the score’s expansiveness (Kenneth MacMillan’s scissors were skilled), and the profusion of particoloured tights among the Verona citizenry is Bad News. But as the Mariinsky reveals, with Diana Vishneva a lustrous Juliet and Vladimir Shklyarov her blazing Romeo, this original staging is not merely a fascinating survivor. It also shows us a vital moment in Russian ballet – as Stalinist artistic doctrine began to fade, and as cataclysmic war was to besiege Leningrad for 900 days. The indomitable grandeur of the city’s dance and its dancers; that nobility of means and unerring grace of manner which distinguish every step that the Mariinsky Ballet takes, were a key to Romeo then, as they are six decades later.
The playing by the Mariinsky’s orchestra under Boris Gruzin on Monday was vivid, commanding. So too the danced interpretations: Vishneva’s purity of means, her emotional freshness, drew Juliet’s tragedy with exquisite lines. Shklyarov’s ardent dancing, like his ardent emotions, was fine indeed. Other roles – Yuri Smekalov’s domineering Tybalt; Alexander Sergeyev’s Mercutio, had bright dramatic fire, and my eye was held by the dancing of Nadezhda Batoeva as Juliet’s friend and by Vasily Tkachenko’s troubadour. Six decades on, this Romeo is still eloquent.