Bloodied bodies, decimated city streets and faces twisted with expressions of turmoil are not the archetypal images associated with classical ballet productions. But the Joffrey Ballet is not your typical ballet company.
Known as “America’s Company of Firsts,” the Joffrey Ballet has performed an extensive list of unique works, even a rock ‘n’ roll ballet. Their newest production, however, is choreographer Krzysztof Pastor’s modern rendition of Romeo and Juliet. The show runs through May 11 at Auditorium Theatre (50 E. Congress Pkwy.), where the images of social chaos were blended with the classic passion that comes from Shakespeare’s most famous story.
As Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s sweeping overture performed by the Chicago Philharmonic opens up in time with the curtain, the audience is greeted with a staccato filled street scene, a stage full of dancers performing a lively dance.
The costumes are reminiscent of the early twentieth century, which matches the images projected on the screen of 1930s city life in Italy behind the dancers. The choreography is not exactly classical, but nods to it with sweeping port de bras arm movements and one of the jewels of modern day dance: gloriously high extensions.
More than 20 dancers gracing the stage in no way appeared to compromise the complete synchronization of the Joffrey corps de ballet. In addition, even sitting only three rows away from the stage, I was hard pressed to make out any noise resulting from the impact of dancer and stage, besides the occasional and unavoidable squeak of pointe shoes on Marley flooring.
Juliet Capulet (Christine Rocas) then ethereally pranced across the stage in a powder blue frock, in contrast to the stark black attire of the other Capulets, meant to represent the rigid dictatorial system of Italy in the era of Mussolini and fascists.
Her attire was mirrored in her lover, Romeo Montagues (Rory Hohenstein). He also appeared in a powder blue costume, along with his cronies Mercutio and Benvolio. Mercutio, played by Yoshihisa Arai, was one of the many highlights of the ballet. His antics with the Capulet nephew, Tybalt (Temur Suluashvili), were filled with rare male partnering, bounding leaps and jumps and a well-acted source of comic relief.
As the production goes on, the Montagues and Capulets find themselves in post-war Italy, where the feuding families attempt to live together in peace. Juliet’s friends (Amanda Assucena and Anastacia Holden) were delightful to watch as they performed a duet/trio with Juliet before her debut at the ball and her fateful encounter with Romeo.
The choreography exemplified not only the dancers’ extreme strength, but also the ability they had acquired through years of training to translate that strength into noiseless grace. Once again, the not-so-classical choreography showed off exactly what dancers are now capable of in the twenty-first century. High extensions held for longer durations, more big jumps and leaps for female dancers and less rigidity in the torso and arms, allowing for more artistic expression in the movement.
As the third act began, the stage was bare except for a stark white curtain descending from the top of the stage and draping over Juliet’s bed on stage-left. The young lovers have been married and attempt to enjoy marital bliss despite the increasingly deadly feud between their families.
Both dancers wore light blue and white attire, though this time with much less fabric. Their vulnerability was further exemplified in the ensuing duet between Romeo and Juliet. Both dancers exuded passion and despair not only with their bodies, but with their faces as well. Playful music accompanied with seemingly effortless lifts and sensual extensions made this a scene to be remembered, evoking emotions nearly incapable of being felt in a sedentary reading of Shakespeare’s work.
After becoming emotionally invested in the couple, the audience’s hearts are filled with despair at the precise moments that the star-crossed lovers stab themselves in avoidance of a life without the other. The death scene was followed with an emotional march by the fellow dancers dressed in modern clothes, jeans, and sneakers.
The sorrow over the untimely deaths of two lovers, due to societal and family differences, was exemplified by additional projected images of gang violence and social turmoil in Italy. It makes one think that this theme of unnecessary carnage as a result of social disparity and disagreement is applicable and quite possibly an appeal to the Joffrey Ballet’s home city, Chicago.