This is ballet for the Snapchat age. Romeo and Juliet done Rock the Ballet style with extracts of Sergei Prokofiev’s eponymous score rubbing shoulders alongside the likes of LMFAO and Swedish House Mafia. Here is the essence of Shakespeare’s tragedy distilled into 24 bite-sized scenes generally lasting no longer than your average pop song.
This self-proclaimed “Ballet with a 21st Century Twist” rattles through the cut-down narrative, dispensing with characters (no Rosaline, no Lords and Ladies, either Capulet or Montague) and rearranging events (Romeo murders Tybalt some three scenes after the latter has done for Mercutio), just pausing every now and then to remind us of a more traditional version in such iconic moments as Juliet’s entrance, the opening of the Capulet Ball (to Prokofiev’s the March of the Knights) and the death scene in the crypt.
Although Rasta Thomas’s name appears above the title, he seems to have had little creative input to the project. Instead, it is worth a rousing cheer to note that – for a welcome change – the choreography is by a woman, Adrienne Canterna, who makes it a double-first by appearing as her own Juliet. A further innovation comes in having a cast of just ten, only two of whom are female and, perhaps because of this, Juliet gets the lioness’s share of the best bits.
Canterna’s choreography is a patchwork affair, mixing classical, neoclassical and street styles into an eclectic range of movement and body language, much of which is very good. Her second scene replaces the usual market place rumble between the Capulets and Montagues with a bar-room brawl over imaginary pool tables – played out to RunDMC’s Walk This Way. It’s a clever twist and reminded me of how Matthew Bourne used a nightclub to make a similar seismic shift in his concept for Swan Lake; later scenes for Tybalt and his two mates (Gregory and Sampson getting a rare name-check) had a touch of ZooNation about them.
Canterna is especially adept in making realistic fight scenes, a fact evidenced by the dancer scheduled for the Tybalt role (Ryan Carlson) getting punched for real before the show began. He was replaced by the diminutive Kyle Lucia who played Tybalt as a 3D copy of Shameless’ Shane Maguire (the Chatsworth Estate’s chavvy uniform seemingly well-referenced by Tybalt’s red tracksuit). Lucia’s Tybalt was a cocky bantam showing off with his one-arm flick flacks and ready to plant a “Verona kiss” on anything that moves. Here was the local bully with the biggest sword and a crazy, wide-eyed stare to match: the training scene in a boxing gym where he beats the living daylights out of his bigger mates – to Vivaldi (!) – was pure Shameless, and simply hilarious. I loved it!
This is, however, Canterna’s show. Her (mostly) barefoot Juliet bursts with excitement, passion and expression, delivered with a cocktail of personality and movement that mixes a bit of Barbie, a quirky dollop of Lady Gaga, a touch of burlesque, the length of Sylvie Guillem’s limbs and the hyper-flexible spine of an Olympic gymnast. Canterna’s sensual, yearning solo to Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream (one of many strangely appropriate musical choices) was undeniably absorbing. The traditional balcony scene was replaced by a pas de deux to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (danced with Preston Swovelin, a secure partner as her Romeo), which was so passionately choreographed and well performed that the absence of a balcony (and even Prokofiev’s emotional music) was no loss.
Roland Greil’s lighting designs ranged from brilliant to atrocious. I loved the cathedral-like sense of theatre achieved just from the blue-green lighting in the crypt scene (including the clever innovation of the comatose Juliet resting on a “plinth” made of grey-clad dancers’ backs) but I loathed being blinded during the scene that ended the first act, not least because this bohemian Woodstock-inspired Wedding to Lady Gaga’s super-charged Edge of Glory would have been worth seeing without the eye-watering distraction of a bank of lights shining straight at me!
The smallness of the cast presents some interesting confusions, although the device of naming each character in the opening scene was welcome. Having Tybalt and his mates at Romeo and Juliet’s wedding is an oddity as is the lack of the Capulet parents, which removes a key driving force from the narrative. Canterna has said that the hip (hop) Friar (Jace Zeimantz) and Nurse (Jourdan Epstein) are the parental figures but since both are closely associated with the teenagers’ deceptions this seems to be a literary non-sequitur of some sizeable magnitude! Without the clan heads, just who is it that opposes the young lovers’ alliance?
The musical collage was so simple in places that it was positively brilliant, amongst which I include the aforementioned Teenage Dream to represent Juliet’s daydreaming about Romeo, The Police’s Every Breath You Take summarising Paris’s devotion to Juliet; Desree’s Kissing You for Romeo & Juliet’s bedroom scene and the ubiquitous Unchained Melody for Juliet’s potion scene. My concern with the music was not how little of Prokofiev’s score was included, nor of mixing it with a liberal peppering of pop songs, but with the over-use of popular excerpts from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which just seemed an ingredient, too far.
I’ve seen many traditional versions of Romeo and Juliet danced to Prokofiev’s wonderful score that have left me unmoved and several modern interpretations that haven’t worked at all. Canterna’s Romeo and Juliet is certainly different; and it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but – some quibbles aside – I enjoyed the energy and the entertainment. The fast-flowing action provides an appreciation of the devastating speed in which these teenage lives are changed. The scenes rush by – like YouTube excerpts of a charity pop concert mixed with a dance gala – but they establish an appealing momentum, requiring just bite-sized chunks of attention span. In that sense, Canterna has surely achieved her goal of tapping into the 21st Century psyche to give ballet a modern edge. Now, how do I get that Snapchat app!