Political conflict is the hallmark of choreographer Krzysztof Pastor's honed, muscular new "Romeo & Juliet," a three-act ballet set not in some "universal" never-never land but in three fraught periods of 20th-century Italian history.
And it's got the archival photos and footage to prove it. Those images, projected on stage, raise the stakes of Pastor's 2008 production, now receiving its U.S. premiere from the Joffrey Ballet, through May 11 at the Auditorium Theatre. While Pastor's streamlined choreography and Sergei Prokofiev's lushly dramatic 1935 score, vigorously played by the Chicago Philharmonic, deliver the story with brilliant clarity, the modern setting makes it matter.
Tatyana van Walsum's spare set and costumes take the factions and the action to the street. Any plebeian or fascist might have worn these styles, while the towering glass walls of what seems a corporate lobby frame the Capulets' ball, looking out on a grim thoroughfare.
Pastor vividly embodies battles of all kinds. As danced by Temur Suluashvili and Yoshihisa Arai, glowering Tybalt and mischief-maker Mercutio are born enemies; theirs is a match made in hell, their intimacy heightened by almost-comic ballroom-style duets. The commanding Fabrice Calmels makes Capulet a rigid but potent dictator who strikes fear into onlookers' hearts, whether by merely raising an arm or leaping, coattails flying.
Coercion and volition play crucial roles in the choreography, highlighting the difference between making war and making love. Even before the Romeo blow-up, Capulet's controlling ways clearly alienate his wife and daughter, who pull out of his grasp or shove him off. Romeo and Juliet's first duet echoes that dynamic: she often slips out of his embrace — not being coy but re-enacting and revising her relationship with her father and training her lover to ask, not command. Free will lies at the heart of love.
Certainly as played by Christine Rocas, Juliet is no victim. Like her father, she plants her feet wide and brandishes her arms. By contrast, the peacekeeping Romeo (Rory Hohenstein on opening night) can seem pallid. Moreover, Pastor's lyrical choreography sometimes falters — though his innovations are striking, especially a muscled, clench-fisted scything motion of the arms overhead, repeated throughout to express supplication, anxiety, resistance, anguish.
The fact is that Pastor's at-odds characters are more dramatic than the lovers; the brilliantly conflicted Lady Capulet, as danced by April Daly, is a case in point. It's obvious that the vast machinery of war will crush the fragile romance. So when Juliet — taking volition to its extreme — tries to cheat power and death in the final scenes, it's less than tragic, more an exercise in futility.
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