Commissioned by the Royal Ballet’s then Artistic Director Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan created Romeo and Juliet, his first three-act ballet, in less than five months.
MacMillan worked in close collaboration with Principals Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, on whom the ballet was made, having lengthy discussions on the nuances of character.
Controversially, the title roles were given to Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn for the première performance on 9 February 1965, as their names alone would guarantee box-office success. When the curtain came down, the audience erupted into rapturous applause, demanding a legendary 43 curtain calls. Romeo and Juliet soon became a signature work in the Royal Ballet repertoire.
MacMillan’s approach to choreography and characterisation was a revolutionary update to the genre of narrative ballet. Romeo and Juliet told a realistic story of two young lovers at the mercy of powerful social forces, characters with whom the audience could identify. The balcony pas de deux contains some of the most beautifully lyrical dancing in the repertoire, overlaid with a simmering sexuality. As the dying Juliet reaches for Romeo in the crypt, the lovers are finally together yet separated by death, creating what is surely one of ballet’s most dramatic and poignant moments.