Rosie Kay Dance Company
Romeo + Juliet
8 September 2021
Gallery of studio pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
It’s just announced that the next live performance of Romeo + Juliet will be as part of a Birmingham Royal Ballet double bill on 14 – 16 October 2021 – details
Birmingham is coming in for a lot of dance love this summer with Rosie Kay dubbing her Romeo + Juliet premiere a “Love Letter” to Birmingham, and coming hot on the heels of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s own love letter to Brum in the form of City of a Thousand Trades, premiered just three months ago. As love letters go Kay’s Romeo has been a long time coming and is the result of her usual meticulous and wide-ranging research driven originally by a teenage fascination with one of Shakespeare most widely-known works.
This telling unusually welds together dancers from many dance traditions – South Asian, street, contemporary, hip hop – resetting the action to the present-day world of urban gang violence and is effectively architected to resonate particularly with the young who inhabit that real world. It most definitely isn’t a strict telling set in Verona with period costumes and artfully-done fights and deaths and love. Its modern and knowing setting is a world that didn’t always connect with me, but what particularly brought things home was the post-show talk, when Dylan Duffus, one of the show’s many advisors/collaborators, talked about visiting his girlfriend in another part of Birmingham and getting beaten up by the local gang. This might not be my lived reality, but this culture is the lived reality for many.
At 75 minutes long it’s super-short for an R&J and yet at times it seemed in need of an edit or tightening up. It seems to start slowly while looking to establish the gang culture and some context. Things happen but it does not seem of huge consequence – or I may not have been looking at the right part of the stage. You do, though, notice the different dance vocabularies and the soundtrack crackling into life with bits of Police radio traffic (RT), distant voices bubbling with the realities of dealing with turf warfare. The score, by Annie Mahtani, is a highlight, blending atmospheric and moody electronic sounds with large dollops of Berlioz’s R&J choral symphony. While it works well I still have something of a sneaking suspicion that the better-known Prokofiev score might punch some of the action home harder.
There are no pushy parents here and the ball becomes a surreal druggy/drunken party leading into the big meeting and duet for Romeo and Juliet. It’s a lengthy affair, as if neither of them want it to end and yet they hardly ever come together. The kiss, an assertive lunge from Juliet comes with much relief after the circling displays of happiness and getting-to-know-you gazes. The reason for its different feel is because it was conceived in lockdown when there were real limits on how long dancers could closely interact. Out of that adversity has come something very different and, on balance, it resonates as a poignant and realistic view of first love, if it might usefully lose a couple of minutes in the telling.
The deaths of Mercutio (called Merc in this production) and Tybalt (Ty) come rather rapidly and are surprisingly casual – a bit of a fight, a knife flashes, job done. It all seems so realistically perfunctory, if the descent to death takes longer and confronts the gang members with the true enormity of what a little skirmish can become.
Juliet takes drugs rather than a potion and the RT chatter talks of a suicide but, as usual, she awakes to find a dead Romeo and in despair joins him in plunging the knife into her own guts. It’s all handled movingly and some productions end here, with the lovers’ double death. But Kay is true to Shakespeare in an epilogue, as those involved reflect on the tragedy, drawn together around a makeshift shrine of petrol-station flowers wedged in park railings – violent death recorded in a way we see so many times as we go about our daily business these days.
I particularly have to congratulate Mayowa Ogunnaike for her Juliet, Subhash Viman Gorania for Romeo and Deepraj Singh for his Merc – all offering deeply dramatic dancing in a cast not short of narrative punch. All up this is a most thoughtful R&J for our time that with some dramatic honing will have a long life and which can speak powerfully to both new and old audiences. It’s a dance of consequence, as ever, from Rosie Kay.