Juliet & Romeo at the High Performance Rodeo through Jan. 26
Review by Stephen Hunt
One part romantic tragedy, one part West Side Story, and one part #MeToo manifesto, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks’ rowdy, sexy, rambunctious Juliet and Romeo is a dance performance that transforms the duet into a knife fight.
DJD artistic director Kimberley Cooper created and choreographed DJD’s version of Shakespeare’s classic romantic tragedy, with a script loosely adapted from the late 16th century original by Cory Bowles, better known to some for his role on Trailer Park Boys, back in 2017.
It was one of the best shows of the 2017 High Performance Rodeo, and following a successful national tour, it returns to the Rodeo in a revised 2020 edition featuring DJD company member Natasha Korney dancing and narrating the story in place of Bowles.
And what a narration!
Words aren’t usually the stars of a dance piece — and they’re only one of the elements of awesome at play here — but Juliet & Romeo is jammed full of text that’s a joy to the ear. It’s poetic, satirical, spoken word that turns one of the oldest stories in the world upside down and reimagines it for now.
There are snippets of Shakespearean verse during set pieces featuring the company playing the court scenes of the Montegus and their rivals the Capulets, part of which gets played out at a masquerade ball where despite the best efforts of her father and mother to marry her off to Paris, 13-year-old Juliet sets eyes on Romeo and all bets are off.
(Photo credit: Noel Begin)
The DJD dance company, most of whom have danced together a long time and move in exquisite lockstep with one another, perform in masks against a live soundscape dominated in the masquerade by a violin (Jeremy Gignoux) that turns the scene into a bit of a Nova Scotia-style kitchen party. It’s got bounce and beauty without feeling overly formal in the least.
The reality of these two feuding clans is that the men are more interested in rumbling than they are in hooking up, and there’s a feeling in the chorus scenes that a knife fight could break out at any moment — and one does.
(Decidedly Jazz Dancers in Juliet and Romeo. Credit: Noel Begin)
That’s where Mercutio takes out Tybaldt, and it all plays out to a superbly jazzy soundtrack of the band, featuring trombone (by Carsten Rubeling) that evokes New York City’s jazz scene in the ’40’s and ’50’s. A DJD performance is always a bit of a retrospective of the Afro-American origins of contemporary dance, and the Jets and Sharks, the two opposing gangs in West Side Story, were inspired by none other than the Capulets and Montagues).
There are also snatches of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream in Act 1, where the dancers perform Pyramus and Thisbe ,a play within that play.
When the gangs aren’t rumbling, the company stages the young lover’s night together as if on a New York city fire escape.
It’s a dazzling, intimate, beautifully-staged scene, with the two lovers shadows playing off the walls of the room while the band performs a jazz sonata of sorts, and it all feels dangerous and sexy and West Side Story-ish.
The more the evening unfolds however, the more it becomes clear why the bold-faced names in the title become inverted.
(Photo credit: Scott Reid)
Korney’s narrator does a speed-through of the plot points that’s funny and familiar and true to the script, but also, brings a skeptical, contemporary, feminist sensibility to a script that — I know it was written by William Shakespeare — needs work.
That deconstruction includes a brilliant scene where all the dancers dress their arms up as legs and dance out the scene on a tabletop, via hand-held high heels.
All of it unfolds, in Act 2, against a gorgeous backdrop of the city, as the curtains peel back to reveal the city down below, so that your eye sees cityscape, a bandstand, and the dance company, in succeeding layers.
Finally, there’s a kind of repose in the final moments of Juliet and Romeo, where Korney narrates a letter to Juliet written from now, in a way. It’s a spoken word piece that speaks to the whole idea of an ingenue, a romantic interest and the way that role has been shaped throughout centuries of storytelling through the male gaze.
Juliet & Romeo boldly snatches back that gaze (even if it was written by Bowles, a guy) and gives us the story as if Juliet was the one driving the narrative.
Delivered by Korney, dressed in her Cabaret-evoking Joel Grey narrator suit, Dear Juliet plays beautifully. It’s smart, mournful, melancholy and guess what? Remember a few paragraphs ago, when I said Romeo & Juliet needed a rewrite?
It got one, in a stunning interdisciplinary production that is every bit the major accomplishment that DJD’s stunningly beautiful performance space has turned into.
Juliet & Romeo at DJD Dance Centre through January 26
Feature image: Natasha Korney Credit: Noel Begin