Feature: The Royal Ballet - Fonteyn & Nureyev in Kenneth MacMillan's 'Romeo and Juliet'

Tuesday 15 March 2016 by Graham Watts

Romeo and Juliet DVD cover

The Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn & Rudolf Nureyev
Romeo and Juliet
Buy for £12.99 from Royal Opera House shop
Released by Network Distributing Ltd Format: PAL Region 2 Run Time: 121 minutes

The fiftieth anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s ground-breaking production of Romeo and Juliet has been recognised by the DVD release of Paul Czinner’s film of the ballet, starring Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, which was originally made for general release at the cinema, in 1966, almost two years after the ballet’s world premiere at the Royal Opera House.

Czinner was a Hungarian writer who took to film direction (and later, production), initially in Germany and Austria, after the First World War. He made many popular films during the 1920s and ’30s (notably a biopic of Catherine the Great, starring his wife, Elizabeth Bergner, in the title role, alongside Douglas Fairbanks). The couple fled from the threat of persecution in Germany, and then Vienna, during the 1930s, eventually settling in London after the end of WW2. After a hiatus of several years, Czinner returned to film-making in the 1950s, developing the use of multiple cameras to capture both opera and ballet performances for the screen. His pioneering techniques were the forerunner of live cinema relays of performances that are now so popular.

Czinner’s first foray into filming ballet came with The Bolshoi Ballet, in 1958, featuring Galina Ulanova, followed in 1959 by his iconic film of The Royal Ballet, made for the prestigious Rank Organisation, which captured Fonteyn dancing as Ondine, the Firebird and as Odette in the second act of Swan Lake. Seven years’ later he returned to ballet to capitalise on the immense popularity of Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in this film of Romeo and Juliet, made when the director was in his late seventies. It was to be his final film.

Controversy had already arisen for the ballet’s stage premiere through the late decision to replace MacMillan’s own choice of first-cast lovers (Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable) with Fonteyn and Nureyev; a decision reached for box office rather than artistic reasons. The impresario, Sol Hurok, also insisted on Fonteyn and Nureyev as a condition for including MacMillan’s ballet in the repertoire for The Royal Ballet’s US tour. And Czinner, too, insisted on ballet’s leading celebrities in the title roles as a condition of making this film. To further cash in on the phenomenal pop star popularity of this unlikely pair, the film was first released in the USA (in October 1966).

Although, his insistence was utterly right as a commercial expedient, it was also a great shame. Fonteyn – then aged 47 – was understandably concerned about the impact of close-up shots, which she believed would expose her to ridicule. Although still sufficiently confident of her ability to portray a teenager on stage and no stranger to cosmetic surgery, Fonteyn was certain that her Juliet would not work on film; although she was torn between this reality and a desire for her artistry to be immortalised in the moving image. It must be said that her base instinct was right. The honeymoon period with Nureyev that had revitalised Fonteyn as a prima ballerina was now in decline and Czinner’s film does the legend and memory of Fonteyn no great service by generally portraying a dancer then past her prime.

Czinner presents his film as if recorded live from the Royal Opera House, even down to the famous crimson and gold curtains opening and closing each act. However, one of several conceits was the fact of it being shot at Pinewood Studios on a set that replicated the Opera House stage. Another issue is that of Kenneth MacMillan’s involvement for, although he accepted a £3,000 fee for the use of his choreography, he had nothing to do with the film; indeed, he was not even in the country at the time it was shot. In particular, the choreographer hated the ongoing obsession with Fonteyn and Nureyev, which he felt had hijacked the ballet that he had intended to be seen.

The first observation to be made on seeing the film again is just how many alterations have been made to the production over these past 50 years. This is notable in set and costume as well as direction and choreography. For example, in the final harrowing scene, the bodies of Tybalt and Mercutio are laid out in the crypt, wrapped in shrouds, on either side of Juliet. At the end of the balcony scene, Romeo does not run to reach up to Juliet at the end of the pas de deux. The fight scenes of 1966 are as different from those of today, as chalk is from cheese. The duelling is intense and – perhaps the product of a more lenient health and safety regime in the 60s – much more realistic. Nowadays, a kill is signified by the épée disappearing conveniently into the gap between arm and torso whereas this film captures Mercutio’s death through a palpable thrust into the kidneys; and Nureyev – who holds the sword like a stick – delivers Romeo’s fatal wounding of Tybalt with a vicious stab to the chest. Both David Blair (Mercutio) and Desmond Doyle (Tybalt) clearly suffered for their art!

Looking back over the perspective of fifty years, the artistic merit of this film has little to do with either of its celebrities and all to do with the rest of the cast. With the hindsight of history, it gives us an early view of stars-to-come with 23 year-old Anthony Dowell flexing his long limbs lyrically as Benvolio and a MacMillan favourite, Monica Mason (aged 25) as a feisty lead harlot. Here we can see a Knight and a Dame in the making. Incidentally, Mason, as with the other harlots – Deanne Bergsma and Carol Needham –wears what appear to be highly-sanitised haute couture dresses. No wonder that when Nureyev came to produce and choreograph his own version of this story (still in the repertoire of both English National Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet) he opted for much greater realism in creating a sense of the grime and degradation of sixteenth century Verona.

As well as spotting those who were yet to achieve greatness, the film also provides a record of a generation of dancers who helped Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Fonteyn to make a style for British Ballet. In his portrayal of Mercutio, we can get a sense of David Blair’s expressive, dramatic quality as well as his virtuosity and versatility; his dancing days now done, here remains the powerful stage presence of Fonteyn’s former partner, Michael Somes, captured on film as Lord Capulet; Derek Rencher appears with a healthy head of hair as the unfortunate Paris; the choreographer, Ronald Hynd, is a Rasputin-like Friar Laurence; and there is a mysterious sort of “toy town” appearance about Doyle’s cartoonish Tybalt.

It is ironic that Czinner’s film came about solely to capitalise on the Fonteyn/Nureyev partnership since, to be blunt, artistically their performances here leave much to be desired. The personal relationship between the two dancers had deteriorated at the time of the filming and there appears to be little or nothing of the magical chemistry that made their partnership famous. Fonteyn had reinvented herself as her invalid husband’s carer and now despaired of Nureyev’s increasingly volatile personal life. Her biographer, Meredith Daneman, recounts a story of how, following an all-night rave at his new home, Fonteyn had to fish Nureyev out of bed – where he was allegedly in a stupefied huddle with several naked and tattooed sailors – in order to take him to Pinewood and film the balcony pas de deux!

Such stories may account for how erratic is his dancing throughout the film. Bewigged in a bouffant blonde mane, the 28 year-old Nureyev looks not unlike a human version of one of the Tracy brothers from Thunderbirds (a puppet-based TV series, then all the rage). At his best, there are scenes in which we marvel at the furious speed and precision of Nureyev’s pirouettes. In the second act he delivers a remarkable procession of five consecutive double tours and triple pirouettes. But, there are also moments where he stands lumpily and dances raggedly. I imagine that it all depended on what he was up to on the night before filming!

Despite her own apprehensions, there are moments when a suspension of disbelief enables an appreciation of Fonteyn’s art as Juliet and, although this is a dignified, rather than child-like, interpretation (no jumping onto beds or Nurse’s lap) we can often see her remarkable expressiveness, if not, any longer, remarkable dancing. She is at her best in conveying the drama of Juliet’s dilemma, such as in the deliberately awkward, unresponsive bedroom dance with Paris and as a most convincing “corpse” being dragged around by Romeo in the crypt. Although nineteen years’ older than her partner, her fears and her professionalism mean that it is Fonteyn who leaves a more consistent artistic image for posterity though the medium of this film.

Czinner’s film was deservedly nominated for both a Golden Globe and BAFTA. The cinematography by S D Onions is impressively vibrant, utilising over 40 cameras, many of which appear to be onstage alongside the dancers. The colours in the balcony scene and elsewhere at the Capulet palace are a magnificent mix of purple, marble-grey, rust and green.

Viewed in 2016, the film seems unaccountably dated. It was made in the same year as Blowup, Alfie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Georgy Girl and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly but somehow it seems of an age before these films. Czinner’s last movie encapsulates something of the good, the bad and the ugly of British ballet in the 1960s. Although it is far from being a great representation of the legend of Fonteyn and Nureyev, it is still well worth seeing this DVD for important archival and historical reasons.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for Londondance.com, Dancetabs.com and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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