It has not been long since the Joffrey Ballet last staged Krzysztof Pastor’s unapologetically modern take on Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo and Juliet. Pastor’s production saw its US premiere at the Joffrey only two years ago, in 2014. Yet, in a year of great divides—not least among them, a US election cycle of unprecedented partisan hostility, the Brexit vote, and the large-scale displacement of refugee populations around the world—this Romeo & Juliet seems to be a particularly appropriate production to revive. Pastor’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play and Prokofiev’s score boils both down to one core theme: the devastating conflict between individual feeling and group authority. In exploring this theme, the ballet twists the logic of time itself, stretching one brief moment of love across a century of conflict.
Act One takes place in Italy in the 1930s. As the act begins, devastating video footage from World War II is projected onto the painted streetscape that serves a backdrop throughout the performance. Lord Capulet, a Mussolini-like dictator clad all in black, evidently runs Verona with an iron fist. The Montagues, wearing white, amount less to a rival family and function more as a rival ideological community: a democratic-minded populace suffering under Capulet’s fascist rule. Capulet’s absolute control is borne out in his treatment of staff and family: he manhandles Juliet at the ball and directs his guests’ movement with military precision. The music here, particularly the score’s famously sinister “Dance of the Knights,” amplifies his dominance. Pastor’s choreography for this dance is angular and muscular, exuding strength and control; it is all the more imposing in the hands of Fabrice Calmels’s 6’7” Lord Capulet.
Romeo and Juliet romance each other at the ball, but their connection is hardly secret. Lord Capulet takes pains to keep them physically separated while maintaining order among his guests. Eventually, the lovers steal away to meet in private for the famous balcony scene—here set in a mirrored elevator that gives us several Juliets in reflection, suggesting that this young lover represents many others. Even during this intimate scene, though, the lovers are not alone. As they dance an ecstatic pas de deux, other dancers hover silently at the back of the stage. Much as Romeo and Juliet would like to imagine the possibility, the scene implies, they will never inhabit a world to themselves; they remain very much in the world of their families, a world of violence and social control. As their dance comes to an end, the bulk of the cast reemerges onto the stage to surround the lovers before dividing again into their pre-existing factions.
While taking place in the same location and involving the same characters, Act Two is set in the 1950s. The Capulets evidently remain an influential family in town, but the Montagues have come to dominate Verona. It’s a time of freedom, commerce, and the dolce vita. Video footage at the beginning of the act shows happy, mid-century Italians eating gelato and smiling. The streetscape backdrop is updated to include rows of Vespa scooters, and the stark black and white of the lighting and costuming gives way to warm sepia color tones. But deadly conflict still dominates life in Verona: Lord Capulet, surrounded by foot soldiers, urges the younger generation to fight, egging on the quarrel between Tybalt and Mercutio that will leave both dead. When the fight begins to wane, he presses a knife into Tybalt’s hand and directs him to stab Mercutio in the back. The appalled Montagues pressure Romeo to take vengeance, and he murders Tybalt under the eye—and approval—of his community.
Act Three opens to projected footage of car bombs and terrorist attacks. Set in the 1990s under the Berlusconi government, the color has cooled to a bloodless, icy blue. The cold, watery lighting feels appropriate when Capulet forces Juliet to dance for a group of suitors, then demands she choose one to marry. The score here swells and sways, evoking the sensation of being trapped under a cycle of crushing ocean waves.
It is this sensation of being dragged along—even crushed—by an overwhelming force that characterizes the whole of Pastor’s ballet. Romeo and Juliet try in vain to defy the fates that their families have determined for them and create a new world of possibilities, but their efforts are doomed to failure. In a heartbreaking final scene, Juliet awakes in her tomb to find Romeo dead beside her and attempts to revive him through dance. She tries to drag him around the stage, to coax his corpse back to life with her own movement. There is no hope, though, and no possibility to make a new life. In the end, she wraps Romeo’s lifeless hand around a knife and uses it to stab herself in a gesture that recalls Lord Capulet’s physical control over her body in earlier scenes. At last, her life ends not with a bang but a whimper. In a score otherwise characterized by imposing motifs, full-throated strings, and dissonant brass, Juliet dies to the sound of a tremolo pianissimo. Afterwards, nothing changes. The Montagues and Capulets return to the stage to find the dead lovers, and in a moment reminiscent of the balcony scene’s ominous end, carry away the two bodies separately, without acknowledging each other at all. There is no reconciliation in this Romeo & Juliet, no “statue[s] in pure gold” raised in tribute to the tragic couple, no unifying “talk of these sad things.” The rest is silence.
Pastor’s is a deeply pessimistic—and deeply moving—Romeo & Juliet. The couple’s love transcends decades, generations, and governments. But so does the violent enmity between their two houses. Even in death, Romeo and Juliet cannot escape control by their families or the community. They may bend time itself, but cannot break the authority of the society that has made them.
Rebecca L. Fall is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renaissance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her research has been supported by several nationally competitive fellowships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Completion Fellowships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.