The Australian Ballet

Happily Ever After: The Ballet Russes' Romeo and Juliet

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Tantrums and tears, catcalls and goggles, a visit from the police and a pink dressing gown slung on a peg. It could only be a scenario created by Diaghilev, the ringmaster of the Ballets Russes.

In 1926, Diaghilev orchestrated a surrealistic version of Romeo and Juliet in which the lovers elope, departing the stage by plane in leather coats and airmen’s caps, complete with goggles. The scenario may seem Monty Pythonesque, but the months before – and after – the ballet’s premiere were far from funny. Following the first performances in Monte Carlo, the Ballets Russes presented the work in Paris, where the opening night was disrupted by a riot. Diaghilev could not have been happier. He thrived on scandal and outrage.

The chaos accompanying the ballet’s creation was inevitable, considering the mélange of collaborators. Choreographed by Bronislava Nijinksa, with an entr’acte by George Balanchine, the Ballets Russes’ production was danced to a score by the English composer Constant Lambert, with design by two leading surrealist artists.

Diaghilev persuaded the Russian ballerina, Tamara Karsavina, to dance the role of Juliet, while Serge Lifar, Diaghilev’s lover at the time, danced the part of Romeo. Karsavina did not approve of Lifar’s partnering skills, but she hid her distress.

Diaghilev initiated the work, commissioning Lambert, then 20, who called his score Adam and Eve. Diaghilev promptly changed that to Romeo and Juliet, then set about dictating the scenario. The story would take place during a rehearsal of a ballet based on Shakespeare’s play. Lambert was not impressed, but undeterred, he asked the distinguished portrait painter Augustus John to design the ballet. Diaghilev dismissed that idea, commissioning instead a friend of Lambert’s, the English artist Christopher Wood. But Wood, too, was dismissed, as Diaghilev decided that no designer was necessary. As the ballet was about a rehearsal of a ballet, there was need for any scenery, he told Lambert. However, after a visit to France, Diaghilev changed his mind once again.

At an exhibition in Paris he admired the works of the surrealist artists Max Ernst and Joan Miró. He bought paintings by both as a gift for Lifar, then commissioned the artists to design Romeo and Juliet.

“For a long time”, wrote the author, Arnold Haskell, “the Russian ballet had been considered bourgeois by the Surrealiste group … the obvious thing to do was to commission décor from some of the group and win them over that way.”

The designers travelled to Monte Carlo, where Ernst painted curtains representing day and night and Miró painted a front cloth. For the first scene, set in a rehearsal studio, Miró scattered some everyday bits and pieces – a barre, some screens, and that pink dressing gown centrestage. Lambert was horrified, telling this mother that the designers were “Tenth-rate painters from an imbecile group called the Surrealistes”.

In the second scene, depicting the performance of Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy unfolded in the usual way, but after the death of Juliet, Romeo – and a very much alive Juliet – donned their aviator costumes. The ballet ended with Karsavina, apparently representing a plane in flight, hoisted to a horizontal position on Lifar’s shoulders.

The premiere at the Theatre de Monte Carlo on May 4 went well enough but when the ballet opened in Paris it was greeted with catcalls, whistles and fisticuffs, led by diehard surrealists who objected to Ernst and Miró being led astray by a capitalist venture (the Russian ballet).

When the curtain rose to reveal Miró’s décor, a shower of leaflets fell from the upper balconies. Written in red ink by two founding members of the surrealist movement, Louis Aragon and André Breton, the leaflets were captioned “Protest!”

Diaghilev was prepared. He had alerted the police to a probable disturbance and told the conductor to continue, even as the yelling drowned out the music. As Haskell wrote, the “plunge into modernism brought a scandal that was dear to him and convinced him he was on the right track”.

But the life of this madcap Romeo and Juliet was brief. It took Prokofiev’s powerful score, written a decade later, to bless the ballet with its long life.