Sir Frederick Ashton’s Romeo & Juliet
Over the past decade The Sarasota Ballet has grown from a regional ballet company into a nationally and internationally recognized institution. The company has seen rave reviews from some of the biggest names in the ballet world and, over the past six years, has been invited to perform at some of America’s most prestigious dance venues including New York’s City Center, The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C, New York’s Joyce Theater, and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. This rapid growth in both artistic achievement and critical acclaim is rooted in Director Iain Webb’s remarkable programming, bringing ballets and works from some of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century to the stage. However, out of the over 156 ballets performed by The Sarasota Ballet since Webb became Director in 2007, it has been the choreography of Sir Frederick Ashton that has consistently brought this incredible attention to the Company.
One of the greatest choreographers of the twentieth century, and with a choreographic career that spanned six decades, Ashton was instrumental in the creation of The Royal Ballet. Much of his work, however, has been lost to time and, especially in the case of his earlier ballet, not formally notated. In some cases, his ballets have been reconstructed using footage of filmed performances; for many works, however, there is simply insufficient source material to utilize. Under Webb’s leadership, The Sarasota Ballet has made significant strides in reconstructing and resurrecting Ashton’s ballets; last year, for example, included his 1936 Apparitions, not having been performed in over thirty years. This March, The Sarasota Ballet will be taking on another rare Ashton ballet, his version of the cherished romantic classic: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
By the time Sir Frederick Ashton started work on his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in 1955, he was already well-established as a choreographic dynamo, having nearly three decades’ experience crafting ballets with his signature charm and wit. Much of his work had been with Sadler’s Wells Ballet—which would be retitled The Royal Ballet through a charter from Queen Elizabeth II in 1956—in partnership with and under the direction of the legendary Dame Ninette de Valois. He had also created two full-length ballets at the time, demonstrating his ability to adapt a long-form story into a balletic version that would preserve the heart of the source material and infuse it with an elegance and splendor all of its own. His first, a 1948 rechoreographed version of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, Cinderella, delved into more comedic space than is often associated with the tale; while preserving the score Prokofiev had composed for his earlier production, Ashton himself partnered with frequent collaborator Sir Robert Helpmann as the “ugly stepsisters” in slapstick roles. At the ballet’s core, however, was a reimagining of the love story between the titular Cinderella and her Prince. His second full-length ballet, a 1952 revival of the classical ballet Sylvia, revitalized this tale of mythological love through intricate footwork and heavy utilization of pantomime; it was designed with dancer Margot Fonteyn in mind, emphasizing her specific strengths and attributes. With the success of his production of Sylvia, which would go on to popularize the ballet and serve as the definitive adaptation for decades to come, Ashton was well-equipped to take on Romeo and Juliet as his next full-length ballet.
Following his remarkable treatment of Sylvia, Ashton was commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet to create a production of Romeo and Juliet that would suit their company’s needs. With that in mind, Ashton set to work on a ballet of a slightly smaller scale—he aimed to emphasize the interactions and relationships between the principal characters, rather than the large ensemble-supported scenes that would be present in other productions of the ballet. This reframing would lend itself to capitalize on Ashton’s choreographic strengths; the audience would focus on the minute details and intricate nuances employed onstage, contributing a deeper and more refined display of the passion and emotional breadth represented.
Ashton used orchestration Prokofiev had created for an earlier Russian production of Romeo and Juliet; Prokofiev’s music served Ashton well in creating Cinderella, so it seemed a logical choice. Indeed, Prokofiev’s score would go on to appear in many subsequent adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, effectively canonized as the quintessential ballet orchestration for the story. Ashton’s Romeo and Juliet, however, would layer the music with an intimacy through the choreography that sets Ashton’s version apart.
The ballet premiered on May 19th, 1955, with a cast including eventual company ballet master Henning Kronstam as Romeo, with Mona Vangsaae as Juliet and Frank Schaufuss as Mercutio; in fact, the young son of Vangsaae and Schaufuss, Peter, would here make his own first onstage appearance as a pageboy. While the performance was a significant critical and commercial success at the time, Ashton rejected demand to bring the production to Sadler’s Wells Ballet at Covent Garden; as a result, it would remain dormant for thirty years, apart from a handful of performances of the famous balcony scene. By 1985, Peter Schaufuss had grown up to become a celebrated ballet dancer in his own right, including dancing the aforementioned balcony pas de deux in 1973, and would eventually ascend to the position of the Director of the London Festival Ballet (which he would later rename English National Ballet). Intent on bringing Ashton’s choreography into a new generation, he eventually persuaded Ashton to bestow permission to perform the work in full, with Ashton joining to rehearse the dancers and even compose several new dances for the production. The July 23rd, 1985 premiere of this production saw Peter Schaufuss in the role of Romeo, the young new star Katherine Healy as Juliet, and Schaufuss’ father Frank, the original Mercutio, cast as the Prince of Verona. With this rebirth, Ashton’s meticulous footwork would take stage once more.
Though Sir Frederick Ashton passed away in 1988, his legacy has been preserved through the rights to his ballets having been transferred via his will, allowing the staging of his work for decades to come. Romeo and Juliet was given to Peter Schaufuss; Ashton felt it belonged to Schaufuss considering his involvement with the ballet over its lifetime. In the years since, Schaufuss has staged the ballet many times internationally, including a 1996 return to the Royal Danish Ballet during his tenure as Artistic Director and a 2011 revival in London by his own Peter Schaufuss Ballet. This Season, Luke Schaufuss joins The Sarasota Ballet as a Principal, dancing the role of Mercutio, designed on his grandfather, in his father’s production this March 27th and 28th at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Given The Sarasota Ballet Director Iain Webb’s spectacular success in maintaining historic Ashton productions, as well as the ballet’s deep connection to the Schaufuss family, these performances will be the perfect opportunity to see one of the most famous romantic works of all time through the lens of one of ballet’s greatest choreographic geniuses.
The Sarasota Ballet