We all the know the story; two star-crossed lovers separated by their families, major fights and deaths in the streets, all leading Romeo and Juliet to tragically bring their lives to an end in a display of eternal love. It’s not the most uplifting story. However, does the heart of the story become strengthened when it’s expressed through dance? If you’re going to see the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Romeo & Juliet, the resounding answer will be yes.
Adapted from Polish National Ballet Director Krzysztof Pastor’s production, Joffrey gives the ballet its own identity with a devastatingly beautiful flourish. Broken into three acts, the ballet blends modernity with tradition, as 20th century video backdrops showcase three vastly different political climates. This theme intends to communicate that this story, though written by Shakespeare in the 16th century, can be applicable to anything that’s being divided. Lovers, groups of people, countries, you name it. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater states, “The story of Romeo & Juliet lives because the events portrayed recur in every decade, in every culture, wherever ideology is in opposition to love.”
We move from Italy in the 1930s, when Mussolini rises to power, to the 1950s, and end in the 1990s during Berlusconi’s reign. The video footage complements the dancing in front of us; tensions are heightened at exactly the right moments, while the intimate exchanges between Romeo and Juliet are given the tranquility blended with unease that they deserve.
2016 marks the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death, and Shakespeare 400 Chicago attempts to resurface his work and bring it to life onstage throughout the year. With the Joffrey’s performance of Romeo & Juliet, we are invited into the emotional world of William Shakespeare, where love isn’t always perfect and when it is, it may be fleeting.
The ballet begins with idyllic music performed by the Chicago Philharmonic, under the direction of Scott Speck. Serge Prokofiev’s pristine score is moving and emotive at all times, causing the ballet to become a complete immersion for the soul. During the first act, we are introduced to the Capulet family, representing the dictatorial system that descended upon Italy. Fabrice Camels, playing Capulet, demonstrated the role powerfully with a persona that showcased the feuding families’ identity. The Montagues are locked in an eternal war with this family, as tension looms and fights nearly break out, holding our attention all the while. Romeo observes the tension from a distance, but isn’t an active participant.
Scene 2 of Act I brings us to Juliet’s story, danced by the elegant Christine Rocas. She’s getting ready for the ball when a few members of the Capulet family arrive, unannounced. It is here where Juliet and Romeo finally meet. Romeo, danced by Rory Hohenstein, has a sweet presence. The pair were perfectly matched to play these roles, with an unrelenting chemistry and magnetism. They meet, they dance when they finally get a moment alone (against their families’ wishes). In this moment I became transfixed with the pair, and knowing how this would end, that wasn’t good.
“Act 1: Song 21: Love Dance” is especially powerful, bringing a tissue to the eye of many patrons at its end. As Juliet introduces herself to Romeo, their love matriculates before our eyes, each trusting each other more with every passing second. Expertly danced by both Hohenstein and Rocas, the dance showcases the Joffrey’s exquisite artistry time and time again, as the pair seemed completely natural together and ideally matched. This scene allowed our hearts to fill, eventually to be broken by the end of Act III.
Act II is a blend of mercurial actions; Romeo and Juliet are wed by Friar Lawrence in a secret ceremony, yet by the end, the two families break out in a large-scale fight, leading to the death of Tybalt, killed by Romeo, as well as Mercutio. The music becomes eerie as the focus is on Romeo, seemingly wondering, what have I done?
The final act of the ballet opens with one of the most intimate moments, as Romeo and Juliet are in Juliet’s bedroom. However, their one refuge cannot protect them from the issues that await outside. Romeo departs after tender moments, and Juliet’s mother then brings in potential suitors for Juliet, a demand from her father. She had to choose that day, as we watch Juliet break down, knowing she would never truly pick any of them.
Juliet soon devises a love-inspired plot with Friar Lawrence to down a potion that will put her in a long sleep. Her family will think she has died; then she and Romeo can run away together when she wakes. Unfortunately, the plan wasn’t foolproof. Friar Lawrence couldn’t get the plan to Romeo in time, leaving Romeo to find Juliet and dissolve into complete and utter devastation. Hohenstein perfectly conveys heartbreak onstage, falling down at her side and processing the pain. The same dagger he used to kill Tybalt is the weapon that he uses to kill himself, as he slumps next to Juliet. Hushed music lulls the ballet to its sadness-infused end.
The hardest moments for me to watch occurred when Juliet wakes up, as we witness Rocas’ panic while lamenting Romeo’s death: trying to save him, crying for help, and dragging his lifeless body across the stage. It’s almost too much to bear as we can literally feel her own heartbreak. With a lump in my throat, I watched her realize that Romeo was never going to awaken. She soon made the decision to take her own life, knowing that she could not continue on without him. The crowd watched in silent reverence as the pair lay together meeting their tragic end.
The Joffrey Ballet never puts on a lackluster performance. Here, we saw a show that was exceptional not only by way of its dancers’ immense talent, but the emotional intensity that the show conveyed. The ballet runs through October 23, so I urge you to attend and see for yourself just how powerful Romeo & Juliet is, even after 400 years of time.
Romeo & Juliet is performed by the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University through October 23. Performances are at various times, and tickets can be purchased in various tiers online, at the box office, or by telephone at 312-386-8905.