Juliet & Romeo
at the DJD Dance Centre, 111 12th Avenue SE, through January 28
When it comes time to create a new work, Decidedly Jazz Dancework artistic director Kimberley Cooper’s fertile dance imagination must compete with her pragmatic, practical one.
That was the case when she sat down to choreograph a new show that featured something new for her: someone else’s story.
“I knew for a long time that I wanted to do a story ballet idea,” she says, “so it was kind of between (choreographing a contemporary dance version of Giselle, or Romeo and Juliet – and Giselle has a lot of women (in it), and the company has a lot of men (in it) right now.”
That was one part of the recipe.
Another part was the availability of Cory Bowles, whom Cooper had danced with, co-created a children’s show with ( 2011’s The Great Jazz History Mystery), and in between, had starred on Trailer Park Boys (as Cory).
“He does all kinds of things well,” Cooper says. “He’s a super talented guy.”
So even though he’s a choreographer and dancer, she enlisted Bowles with the responsibility of narrating Shakespeare’s words onstage – and when necessary, re-imagining them a little, in a meter that’s a little more contemporary – spoken word and rap.
“He’s done a lot of spoken word and rapped a bit,” she adds, “so the first kind of prologue is his rendition and it’s very in your face and has that kind of slam style. I think it adds a nice kind of texture to the piece.”
“Sometimes he dances a little bit,” she says, “(and) sometimes he slams some stuff. Sometimes it’s more poetic, sometimes it’s Shakespeare’s actual words – and that’s interesting too, because I’ve never actually worked with a narrator on stage.”
Not only was Bowles ready, but so too was DJD’s spectacular new $26 million dance space near the Stampede grounds on 12th Avenue, which the company moved into in the spring, after 32 years of performing in rented venues such as the Grand, and the Big Secret.
Having a home venue meant Cooper could enjoy the luxury of time – time to play around with sound and sight and movement – rather than face the tyranny of the ticking clock in a rented venue, where every minute costs money.
“We actually got to work with the set last week,” she says, “three weeks before the show. You can do that kind of stuff when you have your own theatre.
“You just start to imagine the new possibilities,” she adds. “What can we do with lighting? The area where things are going to be performed in is all taped down – it’s been fun (imagining it all).”
The other fun part is having the opportunity to tap into the little girl Cooper once was, who fell in love with dance watching story ballets.
“I loved story ballets when I was a kid,” she says, “and I’m finding it’s nice to work with something that’s already written, because usually I’m writing the story at the same time (I’m creating the choreography).
“It’s great,” she says, “to go OK, I’m going to read that act again, because it (already) exists – it’s nice to have that. It’s very architectural.”
That architectural feel extends to Cooper’s own interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic.
“There isn’t (just) one Romeo and one Juliet,” Cooper says. “There are four women in the company and five men – and I think they’re (the women) all Juliet at one point, and I think even one man plays Juliet in the puppet show – and all the men are Romeo at some point, even if it’s just for a brief moment.
“Something that I like about that,” she adds, “was that was another thing that gave me architecture – like I said, OK, the first Romeo and Juliet I want to be the youngest people in the company.
“And then as they get (deeper into the story), the last Romeo and Juliet are the oldest people in the company. So that’s the (architectural) progression (of the choreography).”
As for the reversal of the names in the title, that’s simple: Juliet, Cooper believes, is a far more compelling character than Romeo.
“It might be kind of a feminist take on this,” she says, “but I think Shakespeare was a feminist too.
“I think he intentionally made her very interesting and strong, actually,” she adds, “and it’s interesting how everything still kind of makes sense for today.
“You know it’s really a story of love and violence,” she says, “but there’s so much violence, there’s more violence than there is love. You forget about that and you’re like wow – so much fighting. So much bloodshed.”
And as to what explains the enduring appeal of the story of Romeo and Juliet, the ill-fated teenagers whose brief, passionate love affair turns totally tragic?
“It’s 422 years old,” Cooper says, “and we still love it.”
Where that appeal was driven home was when a class of junior high school kids dropped by the dance centre to watch a run through.
“They were so into it,” she says. “It was really interesting. They got kind of squirmy during the romantic parts, but just like (remained) glued to it.”
Maybe, she says, it’s the combination of a great first love between two young kids who don’t have the emotional tools to deal with such strong feelings?
“That’s the thing,” she says, “when I talked to them before (the rehearsal), I said I feel so sorry for you guys, because you’re in such a messed up time in your life.
“And you can relate to this story of feeling this much, and being this passionate, because you’re such a mess! Oh God!
“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe people just like passion. Maybe that’s the thing (that keeps audiences coming back).”
Stephen Hunt is the 2017 High Performance Rodeo Writer in Residence