“What masques, what dances shall we have?”

Shakespeare ballets at the Paris Opera

By Julia Bührle 10 February 2017
No other author has inspired as many ballets as William Shakespeare (1564-1616). From The Tempest to Romeo and Juliette, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they are several choreographers who took their inspiration from the most well-known English dramatist. Focus on the few adaptations which entered into the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet over the centuries.

At the Paris Opera, the history of the choreographic adaptations of his works started during the nineteenth century, with two ballets based on The Tempest, created in 1834 and 1889. This play might seem an ideal source for a ballet, given the prominence of music and dance, magic and spirits. However, certain elements are problematic. For instance, the audience needs to know what happened before the play opens in order to understand the action. Love, a favourite subject for librettists, is secondary, and the main character, the ageing philosopher Prospero, is a very difficult protagonist for a ballet.

As a result, the librettists of the two Tempest ballets that were premiered at the Paris Opera adapted the source very freely, as was often the case in the nineteenth century. The first version, which was created during the rise of the ‘Romantic’ ballet, was the fruit of cooperation between Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer, the composer of La Sylphide (1832), Jean Coralli, the co-choreographer of Giselle (1841), and the librettist Adolphe Nourrit. With its prologue situated in Greece and its king of spirits called Oberon, the ballet seems to allude to Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Nourrit also added other characters, such as the enchantress Alcine from Ariost’s Orlando Furioso. In the second ballet, which was created in 1889 by Ambroise Thomas (music), Jules Barbier (libretto) and Joseph Hansen (choreography), Miranda ruled alone over the spirits of the island, roles almost exclusively danced by women. Prospero is absent from both ballets. If Shakespeare’s play includes only one woman whose importance does not match that of her father, the female dancers are at the centre of both ballets. This reflects the difference between Shakespeare’s all-male company, which had a limited number of boy actors interpreting female roles, and the Paris Opera Ballet in the nineteenth century, a company in which women were predominant. In spite of these efforts to adapt the play to the requirements of dance, the two Tempests have not achieved the success of the most renowned ballets of the era.

La Tempête dans la chorégraphie de Rudolf Noureev (Rudolf Noureev au centre dans le rôle de Prospero), Palais Garnier, 1984
La Tempête dans la chorégraphie de Rudolf Noureev (Rudolf Noureev au centre dans le rôle de Prospero), Palais Garnier, 1984 © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet

If in the nineteenth century the two Shakespearean ballets that were created at the Paris Opera were inspired by The Tempest, all those that followed in the twentieth and twenty-first century are based on Romeo and Juliet. This tragedy, which is the most frequently choreographed work of literature in the history of ballet, revolves around a young couple’s fatal passion, a subject that can be particularly well expressed through dance. Another major attraction for choreographers is the very “narrative” score Sergei Prokofiev composed in 1935. Most of the versions created at the Paris Opera use this music, for instance Serge Lifar’s 1955 Romeo and Juliet (a ballet in which Lifar gave particular prominence to Friar Laurence, a role he created for himself), as well as the versions by Attilio Labis (1967) and Yuri Grigorovich (1978). John Cranko’s highly successful adaptation, created in Stuttgart in 1962, entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera in 1983. A year later, it was replaced by a version choreographed by the company’s new director, Rudolf Nureyev. His Romeo and Juliet had been premiered at the London Festival Ballet (today the English National Ballet) in 1977.

Nureyev, a fervent admirer of Shakespeare, also introduced his own version of The Tempest (Royal Ballet, 1982) into the repertoire of the Paris Opera in 1984. In both of his adaptations, Nureyev tried to remain very close to the original play, sometimes by literally ‘translating’ verses into mime. The Tempest shows Nureyev’s interest in psychoanalysis, which also marks his Freudian Swan Lake and Nutcracker ballets. In his Tempest, Ariel and Caliban represent two sides of Prospero’s personality: the angel and the demon are creations of his powerful spirit. Nureyev wanted to give a particularly dramatic part to Prospero, a role he created for himself. He also added a prologue to expose the events that precede Prospero’s arrival on the island. In spite of his efforts, the English premiere of The Tempest was a failure. According to the critic of The Times, Prospero’s reluctance to renounce his magic powers at the end of the ballet could be read as a symbol for Nureyev’s refusal to leave the stage as he was nearing the end of his dancing career. Since French audiences also showed little enthusiasm for the ballet, it quickly vanished from the repertoire.

Roméo et Juliette de Rudolf Noureev, Opéra Bastille, 2016
Roméo et Juliette de Rudolf Noureev, Opéra Bastille, 2016 © Julien Benhamou OnP

In contrast, Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet has been revived frequently up to the present day. In this ballet, the choreographer questions the idealised image of the lovers by focusing on eroticism, violence and the omnipresence of death. Following his usual habits, he gave particular weight to the male characters, especially Romeo, Mercutio (two roles which Nureyev danced himself in Paris), and Tybalt. Nureyev’s ballet ends with the reconciliation of the families and thus shows the harmony that springs from Romeo and Juliet’s destructive passion.

The repertoire of the Paris Opera currently includes a second ballet based on Romeo and Juliet by the German choreographer Sasha Waltz. This work, which was created for Aurélie Dupont and Hervé Moreau in 2007, is set to Hector Berlioz’s score and features singers who move around on stage. Instead of following the play’s linear progression like its predecessors, this more contemporary ballet evokes selected moments from the play. In the ball scene, the lovers seem multiplied. This echoes Juliet’s entry scene in Nureyev’s ballet where she is introduced as an ordinary girl among others before her unconditional love transforms her into a tragic heroine.   

Jérémie Bélingard (Puck) dans Le Songe d’une nuit d’été de John Neumeier, Palais Garnier, 2001
Jérémie Bélingard (Puck) dans Le Songe d’une nuit d’été de John Neumeier, Palais Garnier, 2001 © Icare / OnP

As for Shakespeare’s most frequently choreographed comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two versions feature in the repertoire of the Paris Opera. The first one is a brilliant adaptation which John Neumeier choreographed for the Hamburg Ballet in 1977, and which was successfully revived several times at the Paris Opera between 1982 and 2001. Neumeier, who is famous for his subtle interpretation of works of literature, managed to transpose the play’s complexity and even open up new perspectives. He created three visually and acoustically distinct spheres and highlighted the links between them that remain implicit in the play. Neumeier also emphasised the comedy’s humour, especially in the figure of Puck, the exasperated battles between the lovers, and the scenes revolving around the mechanicals. His ballet focuses on Hippolyta’s psyche and represents her as an alter ego of Titania. In the course of the work, Neumeier increasingly blurs the boundaries between dream and reality.

The second adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream enters the repertoire of the Paris Opera this season. It was created by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet in 1962. The sets and costumes of this sumptuous fairy-tale, which bears resemblance to nineteenth-century classics, have been specially designed for the Paris Opera by Christian Lacroix. In the ballet’s first act, a wood peopled by fairies provides the setting for several conflictual and incongruous pas de deux, the most original being that between Titania and Bottom. The second act, which follows the reconciliation of all the couples, is a long divertissement which evokes Balanchine’s plotless ballets. In this celebration of dance and music, the female dancers are showcased, as in nineteenth-century ballets and most of Balanchine’s works. His Midsummer Night’s Dream marks the evolution of troubled relationships towards final harmony, expressed in the well-ordered dances of the second act. These dances evoke court ballets and the English masques of Shakespeare’s time.

As this brief overview shows, choreographers have approached Shakespeare’s works in very different ways over the last few centuries. Their diverse adaptations demonstrate that dance sometimes allows elements to be revealed which can remain invisible to literary critics.

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