Modernized ‘Romeo and Juliet’ a U.S. premiere for Joffrey Ballet

April 28, 2014
The Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss

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Theatergoers have long become accustomed to radical reinventions of Shakespeare’s plays, whether it is “King Lear” transposed to the civil war in the Balkans of the 1990s, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” set in post-World War II England, or a streetwise “Othello” set to a hip-hop beat.

Things tend to remain somewhat more tradition-bound in the ballet world, especially when it comes to “Romeo and Juliet,” that familiar tale of warring families and tragic young lovers. The lush score for the work, written by Sergei Prokofiev in 1935, has inspired several enduring versions, including two from the 1960s — one by John Cranko (for the Stuttgart Ballet, which was first danced by the Joffrey Ballet in 1984, and revived a number of times since) and another by Sir Kenneth MacMillan (for the Royal Ballet, famously danced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev). In 1977, Nureyev also created his own version for the English National Ballet.

All those productions clung closely to Shakespeare’s Italian Renaissance setting. But now the Joffrey is about to perform a dramatically new version of “Romeo and Juliet,” by Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor. Created in 2008 for the Scottish Ballet, Pastor revised and remounted the work this March for the Polish National Ballet, where he is artistic director. The Joffrey performances, April 30-May 11, mark the work’s U.S. premiere.

So just what is different about Pastor’s interpretation?

The three-act ballet (with the Prokofiev score performed live by the Chicago Philharmonic), now unspools in the form of a political history of Italy in the 20th century. The first act is set in the 1930s, during the early rise of fascism and Mussolini, when signs of another world war were beginning to emerge. Juliet’s family, the Capulets, represent the conservative, militaristic upper class, while Romeo’s family, the Montagues, suggest the more liberal lower and middle classes.

The second act, set after World War II, shifts to the briefly optimistic 1950s, and then into the 1960s, when the terrorism of the leftist Red Brigades held sway with assassinations and bombings. The third act moves closer to the 1990s, suggesting the reign of Silvio Berlusconi and increasing social divisions.

A multimedia backdrop helps create the seamless storytelling with, as Pastor explains it, “A sort of sepia overlay on a painted backdrop for the first act, which suggests a black-and-white world; the use of bold hues in the second act to hint at the rise of Technicolor movies at the time; and finally, in the third act, a sort of blue tint to evoke Berlusconi’s control of television and other media.”

“I could have kept the story in the Renaissance,” said Pastor, “But I wanted something more modern than men in tights wielding swords. I wanted to tell the story with strong physical movement rather than the traditional mime. Romeo and Juliet lived and died in Shakespeare’s time, and I wanted them to live NOW, just as in future generations they will live and die again in yet other ways. The fascinating thing is that when I was remounting the ballet in Warsaw recently the Ukrainian crisis was unfolding, and you could hear all the news about divided cities and even divided families.”

Pastor, who grew up in communist Poland, admits to being “political by nature, and, like most artists, a Montague.” He moved to France in 1983 to dance with Le Ballet de l’Opera of Lyon, spent 1985 to 1995 with the Dutch National Ballet (where he has been choreographer in residence since 1998), and has created nearly 50 ballets for companies worldwide. He still credits “The Green Table” the 1932 antiwar classic by Kurt Jooss (long a staple in the Joffrey rep) for revealing the way politics and dance can come together.

In rehearsals of the street fighting scenes at the Joffrey studios recently, the modernity of Pastor’s “Romeo and Juliet” was immediately apparent. Instead of the stately clink of epees there was hand-to-hand, sweat-and-groan-inducing combat. Paster has given Juliet a fierce dance of rebellion against her father, who is pushing her into a forced marriage, just as Juliet’s own mother was forced into. And he has eliminated the character of Juliet’s nurse, a figure of comic relief.

Pastor also has devised a great deal more dancing for the ensemble.

“The level of every dancer in ballet companies these days is so good that you want to give them all a chance to really dance,” said Pastor. “This was not always the case. The Joffrey dancers are so free and fast. And because they have been exposed to so many different styles they are very adaptable. It’s like someone who speaks many different languages.”

What’s next for Pastor?

“More Shakespeare — ‘The Tempest,’ for the Dutch National Ballet — in a collaboration with Shirin Neshat [the New York-based Iranian visual artist] famous for her work in film, video and photography.

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Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic