Published in Al Ahram Weekly
No need to retell, however briefly, the story of Romeo and Juliet. It is known, whether through direct contact with the Shakespearean tragedy or later interpretations in other dramatic forms, such as the iconic musical West Side Story (1957) — or Shakespeare in Love, where comedy melds with tragedy through the protagonist’s personal life (1998). Even one of the most recent productions, High School Musical (2006), made use of the plot of Romeo and Juliet.
No doubt, along with Hamlet, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet is one of the Bard’s most lustrous works — judging at least by the number of writers, painters and composers its dramatic genious has inspired. The countless musical adaptations of Romeo and Juliet include Bellini’s opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830), Berlioz’s dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet (1839), with parts for mixed voices, chorus and orchestra, and an opera by Gounod (1867) of the same title, as well as Tchaikovsky’s highly charged symphonic poem Romeo and Juliet (1869) subtitled Overture-Fantasy… to mention but a few.
When Prokofiev decided to approach the subject, he was already an experienced composer with half a dozen ballets, several operas, and a few symphonies to his name. Yet it was the Romeo and Juliet ballet that positioned him in “the big league” alongside Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Stravinsky. In 1934, Prokofiev presented Romeo and Juliet to the Kirov Theater in Leningrad; it was rejected, due to its experimental music and happy ending. “Living people can dance, the dying cannot,” the composer commented in response, hanging his hopes on the Bolshoi Ballet which nonetheless called the ballet “un- dance-able” in its turn. Finally, Romeo and Juliet premiered in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1938, with the original tragic ending.
Ever since, countless productions of Romeo and Juliet have been performed around the world. Now the Cairo Opera Ballet Company performed Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at the Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House for six evenings. Directed by Abdel-Moneim Kamel, the ballet’s choreography is based on Lavrosky, Cranco and MacMillan, as we read in the program.
Prokofiev’s epic ballet in three acts opens with a short musical introduction with a main lyrical theme that will recur continually — the curtain rises. It is dawn… We are in 14th- century Verona, northern Italy. Behind the apparent tranquility, dark shadows hang about the city which embody evil and hostility; two families — the house of Montague and that of Capulet — have blood and hatred between them.
In the Shakespearean tragedy, love is not only the main theme, it is also the backdrop against which human nature wrestles with dualities. Light and dark. Fate and chance. Romeo and Juliet carry several contrasting components: joined by love, they are separated by family name. In the tragedy, Friar Lawrence (the wise and selfless Franciscan monk who marries the two protagonists) underlines the nature of that duality, pointing at the good and evil existing in all things. In Prokofiev’s ballet, the Friar’s thematic role diminishes but the notion of duality is reinforced through music, choreography, set and costumes.
No wonder, then, that Prokofiev’s ballet music is full of contrasts; it is intelligently smooth but witty, sensually lyrical and violent, at times multifaceted and at times clear, simple and almost primitive. Harmony and dissonance reflect the complexity of Shakespeare’s drama and, in its ploy, direct the listener to a whole new aesthetic experience. Prokofiev added a late medieval flavor to the music through the use of cornets, viola d’amore (love viol) and mandolins. And the Cairo Opera Orchestra, conducted by Nayer Nagui, replaced the viola d’amore with its successor, the modern viola — standard practise in today’s orchestras.
Today’s versions of Romeo and Juliet have a few numbers removed from Prokofiev’s original score and scenario, too. And the Cairo Opera Ballet Company has reached an even more compact performance by removing even more scenes and hence parts of music, like those with the mandolin — beautiful phrases one might truly miss. Still, the fast dramaturgical rhythm attracted a big Egyptian audience, especially those who rarely go to the Cairo Opera House. For regulars, on the other hand, a lyrical mandolin would have been particularly delightful, above all in “The Balcony Scene”, one of the best-known scenes in all of Shakespeare.
Here the magical mood prevails, as brilliant music reaches indescribable levels of passion. With no actual balcony included in the set design (by Mohamed El Gharabawy), the director chose to rely on choreography. As beautiful as this was, it was difficult — given the sheer emotional charge of the scene. Romeo (Ahmed Yehia) and Juliet (Anja Ahcin), gracefully executing a pas de deux, used a variety of choreographic shapes to bring out the emotion.
All in all the dancers’ abilities were utilised to the utmost to give each character its own individual flavour. Ahcin radiated youthful and controlled enthusiasm, professional precision and lightness of step. Likewise Yehia, whose obvious energy was tightly controlled by his mastery of the ballet form. Romeo and Juliet’s innocent white costumes opposed the black clothes and sharp movements of Tybald (Ahmed Saleh). A whole array of characters, with their costumes and positioning on the set, emphasised the notion of two opposite poles. The stoicism of Friar Lawrence (Alexander Kreniok), wrapped in a Franciscan brown gown, set him perfectly within the typical Gothic chapel with twin-lancet windows and a quatrefoil tracery. His nearly expressionless movements sent a clear message.
“One of the challenges of this ballet is the number of dancers, variety of characters and a double set,” commented Erminia Kamel, artistic director of the Cairo Ballet Company and also the very first Juliet in Abdel-Moneim Kamel’s version of the ballet (back in 1992). And indeed, let us raise our chapeaux for the choreography of the group scenes. In the opening “Market Scene”, for example, the director drew simple and intense lines between the Capulets and the Montagues, wearing pastel red and green gowns respectively. Here again, choreography and costumes underlined the distinction between two families.
In theatrical productions, group scenes are especially challenging for the director who has at her disposal many tools but might know immediately which of them to use. Ballet is probably the best medium for unlocking the power of group scenes. Abdel-Moneim Kamel showed excellent abilities in grasping the contrasts and translating them into a strong choreography in which the whole is fully controlled while all the individual dancers’ movements are meticulously taken care of.
When people dance, they emanate emotions. When the director’s vision infiltrates dance, it sends messages to the audience. Complicated, charged with philosophy, expressive: such notions are delicious for advanced viewers and art analysts alike, while simplicity helps the artistic production to reach those for whom classical music is not the number one entertainment choice.
And so, it must be said, simplicity is the major success of Romeo and Juliet directed by Abdel-Moneim Kamel: this plain, clean depiction of opposites.