A Fresh Look at Romeo and Juliet
“Romeo and Juliet” is a 2008 ballet, choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor, based on William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Premiering in the United States last spring at Chicago’s The Joffrey Ballet, it returned to the same stage for a few weeks this autumn, where I had the opportunity to see it as a cultural outing sponsored by the J.N. Andrews Honors Program. Pastor’s three-act ballet, set to the same score as Prokofiev’s famous 1936 version, is recast as a modern political statement with a powerful and timely voice.
Pastor sets his ballet in three different Italian eras. The first act, set in 1930s Italy, mirrors the rise of fascism by portraying Juliet’s family, the Capulets, as highly authoritarian with stiff, militaristic movements. Lord Capulet, Juliet’s father, cuts a striking Mussolini-like figure, enormously tall and shrouded in a black, formal suit that contrasts with the pale, touchingly youthful Juliet. The second act represents Italy’s prosperous 1950s, and the dances in this section are influenced by the movements of popular dance during this time, incorporating some Jitterbug-esque rhythm. The final act is set in Italy of the 1990s, filled with political and social tension. Some of the time transitions are represented by wardrobe changes that are influenced by fashion from each period and other suggestions of switching time periods are conveyed by the multimedia video backdrop.
The political overtones of this adaptation are especially resonant in this politically tempestuous and divisive campaign cycle. The harsh, even violent, divides between the Capulets and the Montagues are all too familiar, recognizable even without inflammatory language. Part of the appeal of Romeo and Juliet, the reason why most students read it at some point in their academic career, is that it is considered timeless, which Pastor emphasizes by setting his play during three time periods of Italian history. However, Pastor also emphasizes that the key reason why the play is timeless is because there are always warring groups to provide a realistic conflict to compare to the blood feud between the two families.
It is fortunate that the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is so familiar; otherwise the lack of plot details inherent in the physical medium of ballet would have made the production confusing. Personally, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet did not have a lot of impact for me, and the stage adaptations, movie versions and book retellings usually leave me skeptical about the love between two youthful acquaintances. Something about the melodramatic language tends to make me scoff. But the ballet adaptation offered a performance that was emotionally vivid and impactful. The music and movement came together to portray the most emotionally authentic version of Romeo and Juliet I have encountered.