Joffrey Ballet seizes every moment in uniquely modern “Romeo and Juliet”

Joffrey Ballet
Chicago Sun-Times


By Hedy Weiss

“Astonish me!” That was the command Sergei Diaghilev, the great impresario in early 20th century Paris, is said to have issued to his artists. And on Wednesday night at the Auditorium Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet did precisely that with the U.S. premiere of choreographer Krzysztof Pastor’s ingeniously modern, sweepingly cinematic reinvention of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Pastor’s work is a marvel, and the Joffrey dancers seem to be catapulted to the moon by it. Not since Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story” has Shakespeare’s tale of the fever of young love, and the insanity of an internally feuding society, found such fresh life, or such stark, unvarnished truth.

The choreographer seems to have taken a note from that post-World War II, neo-realist film director, Vittorio De Sica. And by almost turning Prokofiev’s driving, emblematic ballet score into a live soundtrack (played magnificently by the Chicago Philharmonic, conducted by Scott Speck), he has devised a form of seamless, intensely dramatic storytelling that in many ways is far more immediate and dangerous than the play itself. Pastor’s choreography has a language all its own — fervent, sensual, original and contemporary, yet requiring the transcendent technique of bravura classical dancers. And his ballet pares away everything but the essential human relationships.

Instead of the usual bustling streets of Verona, Italy, Pastor — in collaboration with designers Tatyana Van Walsum (sets and costumes) and Bert Dalhuysen (lighting), and with the use of archival film footage — gives us the suggestion of harder-edged Rome, with fascist-like facades and a great open plaza. Scenery is minimal — a few cleverly used benches and panels. Juliet’s balcony is a glass box raised above the stage.

The opening night performance was flawless — transcendent from first step to last. Christine Rocas’s Juliet was a total triumph — a dazzling star turn on every level, with rapturous, pristinely beautiful dancing and gorgeously honest acting that could put a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran to shame. Her Romeo, Rory Hohenstein, a dancer of the most subtle grace and intelligence, was a passionate, easily masculine partner.

Giving another stellar performance was Yoshihisa Arai as Romeo’s jokester friend, Mercutio. Arai is a virtuosic, lightning-fast dancer, but here he also revealed his sly, brilliantly comic side as he taunted the truly sinister Tybalt — portrayed with fearsome ferocity by Temur Suluashvili (whose wife, Joffrey ballerina Victoria Jaiani, gave birth to their son just a few days ago).

As the Capulets, Juliet’s haughtily aristocratic parents, the exquisitely paired Fabrice Calmels and April Daly commanded the stage. Daly and Rocas were particularly moving in a mother-daughter duet. And (applause here for Amanda Eyles, who staged the work so expertly, and has coached several rotating casts), there was splendid dancing and many other finely limned portrayals throughout, with Lucas Segovia as a boyish Friar Lawrence, Amanda Assucena and Anastacia Holden as Juliet’s friends, Alberto Velasquez as one of the Montagues, Ogulcan Borova as Juliet’s sadly rejected final suitor, and all the clashing families and soldiers of Rome whose rivalries Romeo and Juliet cannot escape.

All in all, a masterful achievement on every level.