Joffrey Ballet will stage a 'Romeo' for our time

April 30, 2014
The Chicago Tribune
Laura Molzahn

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Choreographer Krzysztof Pastor sometimes sets off metal detectors, the shrapnel in his body a permanent reminder of violent conflict.

"I was bombed in Zagreb," he says, "during the Balkan war." While the Polish native was working on a creative project in Croatia in the mid-'90s, a shell crashed through the studio's glass roof and exploded on the floor; shrapnel flew everywhere.

Shortly afterward — inspired by the real-life sniper shooting in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, of a couple of different ethnicities — he choreographed a short work "sort of from the Romeo and Juliet story," he says. And in 2008, when former Scottish Ballet artistic director Ashley Page asked what he'd like to choreograph for that company, Pastor replied: a full-length "Romeo & Juliet," set to the ballet's traditional Sergei Prokofiev score.

"I want a bold version," Page told him then. "Not romantic, but something really more edgy." Pastor describes the result as "definitely a love story, but in the context of conflict, the way it was written by Shakespeare."

Now the Joffrey gives Pastor's "Romeo & Juliet" its U.S. premiere — Wednesday through May 11 at the Auditorium. Unlike many full-length ballets, this one has no real original version; instead, there've been many choreographic takes on the story. Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater, who danced in four of them, recalls that when he saw Pastor's version his reaction was "Wow! It's so right for this time."

So is the 1935 Prokofiev score. Its teasingly dissonant strains, played on piano during rehearsal, definitely set off the clean, powerful lines of Pastor's first scene. Describing his style as "very strong on classical ballet," he notes that his female dancers "work on pointe, and I'm using classical ballet elements — but influenced by modern technique."

Pastor sets the story in 20th-century Italy, in three periods of political division and oppression: the 1930s, when Mussolini came to power; the 1950s and '60s, a relatively peaceful time that devolved into the terrorist acts of the '70s; and the '90s and beyond, marked by political corruption. Video projections show archival footage from each era.

"I think the conflict around the story makes it even more dramatic," Pastor says. "It's not only the interests of these two lovers, but of a bigger group."

He also ups the ante on interpersonal clashes.

"There are conflicts between generations, between Juliet and her father — and her mother, in fact," he says. "We often ignore this conflict in the ballet versions, but here it's quite clear."

In Pastor's view, Juliet "is not a baby. She has her own will, and she feels the reality around. She is definitely not happy that the father is choosing the husband for her. She's revolting." Nor have arranged marriages disappeared today, Pastor and Wheater say.

As the ballet shifts from era to era, the color of most of the costumes also changes, from the sepia tones of black-and-white film to bright Technicolor hues to bluish TV light.

But Romeo and Juliet's costumes never change.

"I wanted to say: they lived in the past, they died in the past; they live now, and they will die now; and they will live and die in the future," Pastor says. He mentions Ukraine as just the latest example of cultures and families being riven by politics.

Pastor believes that the ballet's Shakespearean origin not only confers the right to comment on the story but creates an obligation to do so, "to have a very personal voice there," he says. "We don't have these beautiful Shakespearean words, but we have movement, which sometimes I think is even more expressive."