The High Performance Rodeo and Decidedly Jazz Danceworks present
Juliet & Romeo at DJD Dance Centre through January 28
111 12th Avenue SE
Four and a half stars
Two things I’d never thought would make it into a review of a show by Decidedly Jazz Danceworks: words and a trombone.
And yet, there they were Wednesday night, premiering Juliet & Romeo, the company’s witty, wonderful take on Shakespeare’s romance-gone-horribly-wrong, and occupying an equal spot alongside choreographer Kimberley Cooper’s energized choreography were both those things.
Words first. They’re delivered by a face that will be familiar to fans of the Trailer Park Boys: Cory Bowles, who adapted Shakespeare’s text for the stage, and that includes turning the prologue into a smart, funny prolonged spoken-word rap that kind of sets the tone for an evening of choreographed sex and (mostly) violence – or, as Bowles’ narrator puts it at one stage, “bros before hos.”
Bowles’ narrator is funny, smart, card sharp – and when the occasion calls for, a hell of a dancer too. Reminiscent in a way of Joel Grey’s master of ceremonies in Cabaret, he’s the greatest play-by-play man to hit town since Peter Maher retired from the local airwaves.
(Kaja Irwin and Kaleb Tekeste in DJD’s Juliet & Romeo. Photo by Gavin Young/Calgary Herald. Photo courtesy Postmedia).
Words are just the candy corn on top of the cake of this Shakespearean classic, too.
The Opening Fight/Prologue makes brilliant use of the windows opening up the space onto a spectacular skyline view of downtown Calgary, with a truly inspired opening sequence: two members of the company duking it out (in dance) in the parking lot across the street from the DJD Dance Centre, lit by the headlights of a car, moving in perfect time to the jazz quartet performing on set designer Scott Reid’s stylized scaffolding onstage.
Later, once all the social not-so- niceties have been tended to during a masked ball, there’s a kind of tragedy trailer between a pair of peripheral characters – Pyramus and Thisbee – who I never even really heard of before that is kind of meant, I imagine, to foreshadow the mess to come in Act II.
(Dezjuan Thomas and Sabrina Comenescu in Decidedly Jazz Danceworks’ Juliet & Romeo. Photo courtesy DJD)
In fact, this is an adaptation that plays pretty liberally with the narrative. It feels as if Bowles spends a large chunk of Act I delivering the backstory of the kingdom, the war between the Montagues and Capulets, the social pressures placed upon Juliet by her social climbing parents who just want her to marry Paris to lift them up in the world, all of it broken up from time to time by some partying, brawling, and gruesome violence, such as when Tybalt kills Mercutio, who then gets killed by Romeo.
DJD’s impressive company of dancers take turns playing the leads too, so that there’s no single Romeo and no single Juliet – and at one stage, rather than having anyone dance out anything, Cooper creates a charming, funny foot puppet scene where they dance it out using their hands, while Bowles’ narrates the social backstory of Juliet’s world.
That all changes in Act II, when Juliet, possibly acting out from the news that she’s being forced to wed Paris, hooks up with Romeo, a member of the family’s arch-rivals, instead.
That sets in motion Romeo and Juliet in 6 minutes, 47 seconds, a kind of parody presentation of the show’s narrative arc, with Bowles reading the logline from each act, in rapid-fire succession, as the company gathers round, as curious as anyone to learn how it all will turn out.
That feels like cheating, a little, and maybe even bailing out from committing to telling the story – but then, Cooper creates a duet she calls Gentle Night, featuring Julia Cosentino and Shayne Johnson, that does what all the words in the world cannot: dancing together against a backdrop of the city skyline, as a long parade of traffic snakes it way west along 11th Avenue, there’s a sudden feeling of wow!
You can’t choreograph traffic or skyscrapers set against a night sky, but the effect of being able to watch all of it simultaneously – dancers’ bodies, city bus, streetlights on a winter night – produces a rush of adrenalin and then, recognition.
This, one thinks, is how it might have felt the time 14-year-old Juliet met her Romeo.
Oh – and the trombone (played by Carson Reubling), in a quartet including musical director Nick Fraser (drums), Rob Clutton (bass) and Jeremy Gignoux (violin) provide the perfect soundtrack to the saddest love story ever told, that has been transformed, by DJD, into an exciting, vivacious new dance piece.
Follow me on Twitter here.
(Feature photo at the top: Cory Bowles and the company in Juliet & Romeo. Photo courtesy Noel Begin).
Stephen Hunt is the 2017 High Performance Rodeo writer in residence.