Long-lost `Romeo and Juliet' again graces London stage

A ``forgotten'' ballet masterpiece, created by Britain's top choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton, 30 years ago and believed lost, has been premi`ered on the London stage, thanks to the determination of dancer-director Peter Schaufuss. For Mr. Schaufuss, now artistic director of the London Festival Ballet, reviving Ashton's ``Romeo and Juliet'' was a personal goal. His mother, Mona Vangsaae, created the role of Juliet, and his father, Frank Schaufuss, danced Mercutio at the premi`ere in 1955 by the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen.

Schaufuss himself, at the age of 8, played a cameo role as the nurse's mischievous page.

When Ashton first heard of the now-famous Prokofiev score and decided to choreograph a ballet, his plans were received with little enthusiasm here in Britain. He had already produced ``Cinderella'' in 1948 using Prokofiev's music, and he was told that one Prokofiev ballet was enough for the British repertoire.

Instead, he accepted the Royal Danish Ballet's invitation, and his ``Romeo and Juliet'' opened in Copenhagen on May 19, 1955. It was an immediate success. The King and Queen of Denmark were in the first-night audience. Applause was so strong that Ashton was obliged to take nine curtain calls, unheard of in Denmark in those days. The ballet was acclaimed as a masterpiece by overseas critics.

The company kept ``Romeo and Juliet'' in its repertoire for 10 years and toured with it to the Edinburgh Festival and on three visits to the United States, where it was last seen in the New York State Theater in December 1965.

Alas, the constant traveling was hard on the production. Sets and costumes became shabby. The company needed Ashton to repolish the style so popular at the beginning. Nothing was done, however, and the ballet was put aside. In 1974, the Danish Ballet replaced it with a new production by John Neumeier. Since the Ashton ballet had not been annotated, it appeared to have been lost forever.

But Schaufuss had long nurtured the idea of a revival. He discovered that Danish dancer-director Niels Bjorn Larsen, the original Tybalt, not only had taken detailed, copious notes of Ashton's choreography, but had also made an amateur silent movie of the production.

When Schaufuss was appointed artistic director of the Royal Festival Ballet here last year, he invited Larsen to teach the Ashton ballet to the company. Then Sir Frederick himself, now 80 years old, came along to supervise rehearsals. He refined and inspired solo parts, and even choreographed more dances for the men.

The process of revival gathered momentum. Several Danes who had danced in the original production came to London to perform nondancing roles -- including Schaufuss's father, who played the imposing King of Verona, and Niels Bjorn Larsen and Kirsten Ralov.

Peter Schaufuss himself danced the part of Romeo in the first London performance. His Juliet was 16-year-old American ``superkid'' Katherine Healy, who gave up her chance to win a gold medal in the recent Moscow ballet competitions to work with Sir Frederick.

The production was dedicated to Mona Vangsaae, who passed on a short while ago.

Thirty years after its creation, the ballet has finally received acclaim in Britain. Its success lies in its simplicity and purity. At the time he originally choreographed it, Ashton had not seen the lavish Soviet production created by Leonid Lavrovsky in 1940 and later revised for the Bolshoi with Galina Ulanova as Juliet. So his approach is unique.

Unlike most productions (and there have been numerous balletic versions of Shakespeare's immortal classic since the first recorded ballet in Venice in 1785), Ashton concentrated on the individuals' development rather than swashbuckling fights and vast crowd scenes.

The Soviet extravaganza, which I saw in 1980, was like a huge tapestry, every inch woven with bustling scenes. Ashton's production was more like petit point -- exact, refined, and simply but neatly stated. He introduces the leading roles and their characters individually rather than opening on crowded streets of Verona. The balcony scene is a tender quickening of love, with gentle, artistic movements and few of the acrobatic lifts popular today.

Kathy Healy's much-publicized London debut turned out to be controversial. She was hailed by the Sunday Times of London for her ``effortless lyricism . . . her interpretation [was] most touching and consistently intelligent.'' The Daily Telegraph, on the other hand, thought it a ``serious mistake in casting,'' adding that she was out of her depth when it came to passion.

It is always hard not to compare Juliets. But Miss Healy's interpretation lent a freshness and excitement to the heroine's awakening feelings. She was at her youthful best in her first scene, when, still a child, she teases her nurse. Yet her moments with Romeo were innocently touching. After all, it was her first love, not a rehash of experienced affairs.

Her dancing is pleasing, although she has a few poses, such as an oddly angular foot in arabesque, that are not attractive. She was fortunate to have the supportive partnering of Schaufuss, who threw every emotion into the ballet he was instrumental in returning to the stage. And the audiences like it: The Coliseum Theatre in Trafalgar Square was filled each night.

Possibly, though plans are not firm yet, the ballet will go to the Soviet Union next year when the London Festival Ballet, as just announced here, will become the first British dance company to tour the USSR in 25 years.

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