Joffrey’s ROMEO AND JULIET is a Modern Masterpiece

Joffrey’s ROMEO AND JULIET is a Modern Masterpiece

Pictured: Rory Hohenstein (Romeo) and Christine Rocas (Juliet). Photo by Cheryl Mann. 

Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at The Joffrey Ballet

By Abigail Trabue

Joffrey Ballet opened its 21st season in Chicago with what might be the single best production I’ve seen by the company in the 15 years I’ve lived in Chicago, Krzysztof Pastor’s ROMEO AND JULIET. Part of Chicago’s SHAKESPEARE 400, this reimagined tale of two star-crossed lovers feels fresh and accessible bridging the gap between a story that is four centuries old and the 21st century social, political and religious struggles we see play out daily in our modern world. With the help of dramaturg Willem Brugs Pastor trimmed down the iconic and gorgeous score by Sergei Prokofiev and shifted a few characters around to create a focused narrative that moves seamlessly through three different decades (30’s, 50’s and 90’s) over the course of three acts.

Starting in 1930’s Italy, we are introduced to a world where two families, the Montagues, and the Capulets, are incapable of finding common ground. Immediately we see to Pastor’s unique blend of modern dance and traditional ballet come into play, something that might turn many off, but Pastor masterfully pays respect to both styles so beautifully that they never feel at war with each other. This is not a ballet where you are going to see Juliet doing multiple fouettés across the floor, or Romeo leaping endlessly across the stage, this is a ballet who’s difficulty is incredibly subtle, but it’s tough and it asks of the dancers to jump between the smooth and the sharp, to the rounded and the broken while connecting each move to the next without us seeing the transition. This is not easy to do, but it is often underrated. Joffrey doesn’t fall short.

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Rory Hohenstein and Christine Rocas. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Led by Rory Hohenstein (Romeo) and Christine Rocas (Juliet) the company has achieved a level of deep character development that doesn’t need words. The palpable chemistry, love, and respect between Hohenstein and Rocas is electric, and it’s genuine. Rocas is an incredible dancer and actor, and she was born to dance Pastor’s choreography. Her evolution throughout the ballet is mesmerizing to watch and by the time we see her pleading with her mother and resisting her father’s insistence she choose a suitor, you almost forget this is not your story because you are feeling everything she is feeling so intensely. You are screaming in your head with her, pleading with Lady Capulet (played and danced with such conflict by April Daly) and by her side you’re helplessly and stubbornly defying her Father (played by Fabrice Calmels who is such a commanding presence on stage and about the only dancer I know who can make a step ball change look menacing, authoritative and powerful). But where Rocas is all fire and grace, Hohenstein is anguish and heartfelt love and friendship. His personal relationships on stage are the highlight of his journey. His connection with his friend Mercutio is there from the start, it doesn’t feel forced, and when Mercutio (danced with this dark, but loveable jester-like quality by Yoshihisa Arai) is stabbed at the hands of Tybalt (Temur Suluashvili who’s relationship with Lady Capulet is a pleasantly added twist) you can feel Romeo’s anguish. What follows is one of the most intense and violently appropriate stage combat scenes I’ve witnessed on a ballet stage. The use of both Hohenstein and Suluashvili’s athleticism and strength as dancers plays so well with Pastor’s modern and aggressive combat and ballet choreography. This is a realistically feeling hand to hand rumble with Romeo eventually succeeding in stabbing Tybalt with the very dagger used to kill Mercutio. It certainly brought WEST SIDE STORY to mind as this rumble closed out Act II which was the 1950’s act.

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Rory Hohenstein and Temur Suluasvhili. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

And here is where costume and set designer Tatyana Van Walsum comes in. Her use of color in the costuming (the gentle blue worn by Romeo and Juliet is such a beautiful play on their innocence) takes the story to just the right place. Gone are the tutus and tights. Instead, we visually relish danceable, but period-appropriate outfits. Lady Capulets dress seems to float around her like an extension of the inner conflict and confusion she feels.

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April Daly and Fabrice Calmels. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Pastor’s use of touch and lines and how it connects so solidly to Prokofiev’s score transports the audience and allows us to feel this story all over again, for the first time. I found myself overwhelmed with emotion when Romeo believes his Juliet is dead. What he felt, the choice he made, brought tears to my eyes and I found myself leaning forward in my seat no longer feeling as though I was in a theater that seats over 3,900 people, but one that seats me and Rocas and Hohenstein. To love so deeply that you can’t imagine a life without your love is a chest tightening feeling. When Juliet returns the sentiment and kills herself (at the hands of her dead Romeo), I felt such a depth of despair. A feeling that stayed with me long after I left the theater that night and propelled me to my feet the moment Rocas and Hohenstein took their bows.

Joffrey’s ROMEO AND JULIET continues to solidify what I believe to be a continued renaissance under Ashley Wheaters artistic leadership. This is a company who is bridging both the classic and the contemporary flawlessly, assembling an ensemble of artistic dancers who are not only steeped in incredible technique, strength, and gentle grace but are masterful actors in the world of their craft. They know how to tell a story and how to feel a story.

With Joffrey’s recent major leadership changes for its Academy of Dance, all signs indicate we’ll be seeing, even more, unification of artistic standards between the academy and company and more students moving directly into Joffrey’s corps de ballet and beyond thus continuing the strong storytelling that continues to elevate Joffrey as a leader in the ballet world.

Now is the time of the Joffrey Ballet and ROMEO AND JULIET is the perfect example of what this company is capable of doing and achieving.

About author

Abigail Trabue

Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue

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