The relations between Sergei Prokofiev and ballet were not easy. His ballet music received controversial reviews from critics; in this area he experienced both thunderous defeats and breathtaking success, and he was often misunderstood. Nevertheless it did not stop him from coming back to ballet again and again, he left us incredible masterpieces and immortal Romeo and Juliet.
He first saw the ballet in 1900, when he was 9 years old. It was The Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky and his impression was somehow mixed. By that time the young musician had already composed the opera called Giant, but he had not thought that writing music for ballet would become his fate.
Diaghilev ballets became the turning point for Prokofiev, he was mesmerized by Daphnis and Chloe by Ravel and The Firebird and Petrushka by Stravinsky. In conversations with Diaghilev first appear vague outlines of Scythian Suite, a ballet on Russian prehistoric theme where the atmosphere of the Scythian "barbarism" is recreated. The ballet was initiated by Diaghilev who had The Rite of Spring on his mind. Prokofiev’s first steps in ballet were made under the influence of the brilliant music of Stravinsky. One of his first successful attempts in ballet was The Tale of the Buffoon (between 1915 and 1920). Bearing in mind a cruel joke that played with him the weakness of the libretto of his previous work, this time Prokofiev himself creates the libretto and borrows a plot for the ballet from Russian fairy tales retold by Afanasyev. This vivid and witty ballet was filled with funny episodes in Russian folklore style.
The growing interest of the Western world to the Bolsheviks country was not left unnoticed by Diaghilev. He commissioned Prokofiev to make the ballet about the Soviet life. This is how the production with an intriguing title Le Pas d'Acier staged by Léonide Massine appeared. It consisted of several unrelated episodes: a train with speculators, commissars and papirosniks. The dancers showed the movements of machinery, machine tools and the noise of steam hammers. Unfortunately the performance that did not have a single plot was not successful neither in Paris nor in London.
Prokofiev had got the chance to demonstrate his unconventional talent several years later in The Prodigal Son, staged in 1929. The contrast scenes: bacchanalia at the feast and the morning after a riotous night, and then a picture of the return of the son to his father's home, that is full of sorrow and humility, produce a very strong impression. The music in the ballet mesmerized by its simplicity, warmth and nobility. After The Prodigal Son Prokofiev created a sublime lyrical On the Dnieper that anticipated his three main works - Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and The Tale of the Stone Flower.
Soon after his return to the motherland in 1933, Prokofiev decided to create the ballet to Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The idea was given by Sergei Radlov, a prominent Shakespeare scholar and artistic director of Kirov Theatre. The composer started working on the score while creating the libretto with Radlov and Adrian Piltrovsky, a well-known St. Petersburg theatre critic and playwright. In 1936 the first version of the ballet, that had an unusual happy ending, was presented to the Direction of the Bolshoi Theatre. Although they had in generally a positive impression on the music, a happy final was put under question. For the final version approved by the Bolshoi a tragic ending was created. At the same time controversial articles criticizing the music of Shostakovich for ballet were published and the direction of the Bolshoi decided not to take the risk of staging Prokofiev’s work. The same decision was taken by the Leningrad Choreography Academy. The ballet was finally premiered in 1938 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. One-act ballet with choreography by Ivo Psota was very-well received by the audience. After that the Soviet Union decided to stage this production promptly in Kirov Theatre.
The choreography for the ballet was made by Leonid Lavrovsky who had to go through the heated debates with the composer. Prokofiev initially did not want to put any changes to the ballet that he had created 4 years ago. Finally, another version of the ballet with several new dances and dramatic episodes was created. It was this version that became a summit of the Soviet ballet.
The main roles were taken by Galina Ulanova and Konstantin Sergeev. The role of Juliet became a hallmark for Ulianova, she was quoted saying "I could not start preparing the role of the Juliet with none of my students for quite a while. Parting with it for me meant the same as parting with a living person". Despite that in the beginning the ballerina could not get used to Prokofiev’s music and after the premiere she even joked "For never was a story of more woe than the music of Prokofiev in the ballet".
Prokofiev’s success in ballet was firmed with Cinderella, an amazing fairy tale made in 1941-44, in the midst of the war. Its way to the stage was not easy either. Maya Plisetskaya remembered that "Before the premiere of Cinderella the theatre was literally on fire. The music that sounded for the first time on earth was unusual. The orchestra, either from the idleness or from the wrong following to the Marxist dogma that the art belongs to the people nearly rebelled against Prokofiev. His scores used to be simplified and modified before in the walls of our theatre. The most notorious example is the Romeo modified by Boris Pogrebov, a musician from the orchestra, for the sake of clumsy and deaf dancers. "Louder, louder, we cannot hear a thing" – they were shouting from the stage… Prokofiev, who visited all the rehearsals, kept silence politely while trembling from anger. I felt pity for him. It was not easy to bear this, I guess".
Today, 125 years from the birth of Prokofiev and 63 years after his death, his ballets are not just alive, they became classics of the world ballet.