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Romeo and Juliet Dance Highlight: The Balcony pas de deux

Choreographer Kenneth MacMillan captures the beauty and emotion of Shakespeare's text in one of ballet’s most iconic love duets.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

3 September 2015 at 5.06pm | Comment on this article

‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ – perhaps the most famous line in English literature, and part of one of Shakespeare’s most captivating love scenes. Romeo and Juliet’s illicit nighttime meeting in the Capulets’ orchard so inspired choreographer Kenneth MacMillan that, even before his full ballet adaptation was given the go-ahead by Royal Opera House management, he had devised a Balcony pas de deux to be performed by Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable on Canadian television. This duet later became the basis for his full-length ballet, and one of the most iconic love pas de deux in the repertory.

Previous ballet adaptations of Romeo and Juliet had been highly stylized, and MacMillan was determined to be different. He delved into the lovers’ feelings with Seymour and Gable, drawing on human experiences to create a potent, believable realization of Shakespeare’s story. Take the opening: after the couple appears out of the shadows at the start of the pas de deux, it is more than two minutes before they dance a single step. MacMillan instead depicts the powerful connection between them in simple, instinctive gestures and subtle glances. As they clasp hands and walk slowly downstage, his Romeo and Juliet embody not fictional ballet characters but real people.

Juliet suddenly grasps Romeo’s hand and clasps it over her heart – no longer the naive girl afraid to acknowledge her feelings. Her action prompts Romeo to launch into a rhapsodic solo, to a new version of Prokofiev’s Romeo theme heard earlier in the ballet. MacMillan explained that he and Gable ‘very, very consciously devised a series of steps that were all slightly off balance and turning and reeling. You know that minute when you know that you are hugely, deeply attracted to somebody and when you realize that they’re feeling the same way? You can’t believe it’s happening’. Thus, Romeo’s solo begins with expansive turns in attitude and arabesque and becomes increasingly ardent, building to a series of tours en l’air and grands jetés around the stage, a shimmer of chainés to a drumroll, and both arms outstretched towards Juliet.

Juliet runs towards Romeo and extends her leg in a wide grand rond de jambe around her body to arabesque, giving herself fully to him. As Romeo’s theme blossoms into Prokofiev’s soaring Love theme, they finally dance together – MacMillan punctuating a poetic, predominantly classical vocabulary with a series of heart-stopping lifts. At one point Romeo sweeps Juliet completely head over heels over his shoulder as the harp plays a plunging scale, and they pause in this position, their total stillness demonstrating Juliet’s trust in Romeo. (MacMillan will use stillness again a number of times in the ballet – finally to harrowing effect when Juliet discovers Romeo’s body in the tomb.)

Then they’re off again, and even an anxious moment – Juliet momentarily breaking away from Romeo, afraid that someone is watching them – doesn’t diminish their rapture. He kneels before her, and she runs back into his arms, sweeping her arms into a beautiful arabesque again and again as he lifts her skywards, his ‘winged messenger of heaven’.

Then it’s Juliet’s turn to dance for Romeo. To a luminous string melody over bubbling woodwind, her steps are a gleeful recollection of Romeo’s variation – with multiple turns and attitudes – and finish with a passage in which she flits buoyantly around him. Romeo rises and they dance passionately together once more. As the pas de deux draws to a close, he grabs Juliet’s hand and gazes into her eyes in another moment of stillness, before drawing her into an extended kiss.

Romeo and Juliet runs 19 September–2 December 2015. Tickets are still available.

The production is supported by Boodles and given with generous philanthropic support from Peter Lloyd, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson and the Jean Sainsbury Royal Opera House Fund.

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