In A Nutshell
Crazy, sexy, and sumptuous, Adrienne Canterna and Rasta Thomas’ Romeo and Juliet is an exquisite teenage fever-dream that brims with electric youth.
William Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragedy gets a modern dance reworking from Canterna, splicing in music from Prokofiev’s original ballet score, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Lady Gaga, and a whole host of other pop-songs.
One of the things that is most renowned about Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s luscious prose. So a version where the text has been completed stripped away and everything is told through movement seems a little self-defeating. But Canterna is more concerned with Romeo and Juliet’s high-drama story and how it works like any other grand ballet, as well as presenting it in a very different light to usual. Canterna’s version of Romeo and Juliet hones in on the central characters and makes this their story, giving it a youthful and teenage slant. Gone are the parents and large crowds, and instead we see a cast reduced to core 10 people, each re-examined by Canterna regarding their roles in the fate of our star-crossed lovers.
The only problem is that given dance is such an abstract way of telling a story, you do need to know the text before seeing Romeo and Juliet to understand what has been cut where and why, and also what point of the story you’re at. For example, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that the vial Juliet initially drinks doesn’t actually kill her if you weren’t already familiar with the play, as the bounding actions of the dancers don’t really make it crystal clear. It’s a difficult thing to get across in dance, even though Canterna and her team try very hard. But its a vital part of the plot none the less.
But even so, this particular Romeo and Juliet is certainly slicker and more character driven in this reduction than most full-blown versions, bringing the audience to the heart of the story: whirlwind hormones and teenage misadventure. It’s a spunky and refreshing take for which Canterna, Thomas, and their “BAD BOYS OF BALLET” bring to rippling life.
Seeing The Bard’s tragedy set to Gaga and Jay Z, as well as standard classical fayre, is something of a curious selling point. It’s also something that could have easily been shallow gimmick. However, Romeo and Juliet couldn’t be anything but. Canterna has started with the better known, as well as some of the less recognised but powerful, moments from Prokofiev’s score, and initially filled in other bits with excerpts from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos. In doing so, she has found a real symbiosis between the two composers in how the music propels scene and emotion. Some of the Vivaldi excerpts work even better than Prokofiev’s original score in places, proving Canterna’s choice as intelligent and inspired and not flippant novelty.
This meticulous inspiration extends to Romeo and Juliet’s use of pop music too, finding a synchronicity of feeling that transcends epochs. Moments that work brilliantly include Juliet’s giddy solo to the sugar-glazed force that is Katy Perry, capturing the intoxicating bliss of being in love. Even moments that don’t initially feel like it would come off well eventually take you by complete surprise. As Juliet contemplates taking Friar Lawrence’s death-like remedy, the strums of The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” feel rather naff at first. But by the end of it you’re on absolute tenterhooks: the music chiming with a powerful evocation that is original and spellbinding. This imagination and ingenuity is something that runs through the entire show, not just choice moments.
Furthermore, though the modern songs give Romeo and Juliet the youthful vibe that its certainly aiming for, the stark juxtaposition against the classical pieces gives the ballet a real sense of exciting neurosis. For a tale so familiar and entrenched in the cultural psyche, it suddenly becomes unpredictable and dynamic like never before.
Canterna’s choreography for Romeo and Juliet is also as audacious and as stunning as the rest of the production. Although very clearly rooted in traditional ballet, like the splattering of the contemporary in the music choices, the same is certainly true for the choreography. It’s a fabulous monster mash-up of styles in an approach that’s never scared to be daring, unorthodox, and wild to achieve what it wants. Every leap, lift, pop, lock, and twerk is just as bombastic and beautiful as the pirouettes and plies. Everything Canterna choreographs for Romeo and Juliet is with a definite view to project story and emotion, as well as create some utterly breathtaking visuals, especially when it’s at its most acrobatic, resulting in some utterly sumptuous sights.
Direction & Production
Canterna’s dance is expertly lifted by Thomas, who wholly embraces her vision for Romeo and Juliet, pushing a slick and modern production behind it. The most notable of ways which Thomas does this is through the use of project videos created by Joshua Hardy. Some of the visuals for Romeo and Juliet look a little cartoony, but at least here it’s in keeping with the youthful current that underpins the entire aesthetic. But what’s best about them is just how sparingly they’re used. They’re never omnipresent, and are mostly use to establish a scene rather than dominate it. For the rest, Thomas, working with Roland Greil, uses some very impressive lighting to conjure tenderness or tension. Indeed, some of the most climactic and arresting scenes in Romeo and Juliet start with the video projection only for it to fade out to have lighting effects crank up the drama better than any computer generated image ever could.
Elsewhere, Thomas’ direction ensures that he focus in Romeo & Juliet is always on the dance. He carefully teases the blocking of scenes to still ensure the shock and awe of some of Canterna’s stunning bodyscapes still astounds, but subtly directs our attention to where it needs to be and when. Despite the technical complexity of the production, Thomas ensures that nothing at all distracts from the dancers.
There are some issues, however. As Romeo and Juliet is still essentially a ballet, it is performed very much as one: dance, stop, applause, pause to set up next scene. This work’s well enough for traditional ballet where the scenes are long enough to make the breaks between them feel quick by comparison. Yet here, with each scene lasting no more than five minutes, the constant stop and start between each number really stilts the flow and feels fidgety: something that’s very noticeable in Act I. The show could really do with a snappier continuity between them that would keep the spell of wonderment Romeo & Juliet casts over the audience unbroken and uninterrupted. It certainly achieves this much better in Act II, which is a relief as Romeo and Juliet is therefore able to build the crescendo towards the climax that leaves you at the edge of your seat compelled and astonished.
Furthermore, whilst the eclectic sounds creates a crazy aural aesthetic, it’s a bit of a task for the sound engineers to constantly switch between the sound balance of the crisp treble of the classical pieces to the heavy bass boom of the contemporary. This does mean that the pop numbers can sometimes feel a bit tinny and strangely flat in places.
The dancers behind Rome and Juliet are full of unparalleled energy, hedonism, and sex appeal. As much as they fuel a fire that sustains the high octane dance of the entire show, they also bristle with fun and cheek. Great examples of this is Jarvis McKinley as Mercutio, and his scathingly sarcastic death scene, bringing “‘Tis but a sractch” to snarky life. Jourdan Epstein is also a very naughty nurse, brimming with as much unapologetic kink as maternal affection. Elsewhere Eric Lehn as Paris is wonderfully goofy as the over earnest would-be suitor, prompting a sincerity and sympathy that we don’t usually get with this often forgotten character.
But whilst its the leads for Romeo and Juliet that absolutely astound. Ryan Carlson as Tybalt is a supreme alpha-male: sensual, scary, and mind-bogglingly athletic. Aside from his show-stopping flips, he’s a brutal Tybalt as there was one. Preston Swovelin as Romeo is incredibly tender and affectionate. But his loveable and dopey persona doesn’t stop him from being able to perform gob-smacking moves with an incredible soft romantic touch as well as boundless pizzazz.
Canterna, leading the production as Juliet, has a phenomenal star-quality. Don’t be fooled by her petite frame as she can dance with a raw and burning power of emotion and agility that’s worthy of several Oscars. She’s an utter marvel to watch, especially alongside Swovelin, in creating movement and awe that floods the entire theatre.
Canterna and Thomas’ version is a spunky sucker-punch to the senses. Dazzling, daring, and off-the-wall, it’ll make you fall in love with Romeo and Juliet all over again.
Romeo and Juliet plays at the Peacock Theatre, London, WC2A 2HT, until 29 March. Tickets are £15 – £40. To book, visit www.sadlerswells.com.