We already know the basics of Romeo and Juliet, but in Angelin Preljocaj’s version I confess that I lost the plot several times. The French-born Albanian choreographer relocates and updates the setting to … where? when? The designs provide some conflicting pointers. The set, for example, is a futuristic prison-like scene, a cross between the Berlin Wall and Thunderdome, its inmates in ripped and frayed clothes. The guardsmen are clothed helmet-to-boot in slinky skin-tight black, like Baddies from Batman Returns, and the Friar Lawrence figure is caped and capped. Meanwhile, Juliet is guarded by two female wardens clothed half in black and half in white. Prancing as prissily as dressage mares, they could be weird chess pieces from Alice in Wonderland.
There are, to be sure, two groups. Romeo belongs to the raggedy rebels, and Juliet to the uptight oppressors. Early on, a group of women in elegant gowns enter the scene and caress the men; the patrolmen stand stiffly to attention but the inmates seem rather to enjoy the manhandling. It is here that Romeo meets Juliet, though her trotting wardens disapprove.
ghostly wilis dressed in chic white underwear; a guardsman patrolling the wall with a (rather docile) Alsatian.
The basic love story anchors the rest of the action: Romeo meeting Juliet at night, Juliet faking her death with a poisoned red robe, Romeo discovering her and committing suicide, Juliet’s awakening and her own death. And Romeo’s mate Mercutio being roughed up by the guards and finally dying. Interspersed are scenes of folky frolicking between the inmates and the women; an ensemble of ghostly women appears as Juliet slumbers, ghostly wilis dressed in chic white underwear; a guardsman patrolling the wall with a (rather docile) Alsatian.
Though its stated premise is of class difference within a totalitarian regime, I felt that the main undercurrents were made of the interplay of power with sexual desire, and repression. The strongest moments are the love and death scenes. Not remotely romantic, there’s a real sense of struggle between Romeo and Juliet, a struggle driven by desire, and desire for control. So too is there an angry animal passion in the death scene, Romeo nuzzling Juliet’s body like a dog, Juliet hurling herself in rage against Romeo’s corpse.
But around these pivotal moments, the ensemble choreography often feels like filling, underchoreographed, the phrases overly repetitious. While the ballet does generate a powerfully menacing atmosphere, its scenes are wildly variable. The dancers are certainly strong, and the ensemble movements are closely co-ordinated. To tell the truth, I enjoyed theatrical experience, but found it wanting on reflection. The previous pieces I’d seen by Preljocaj were much more abstract, and I’d been impressed by their composition and attention to movement; in turning to a narrative drama, it seems that some of that intelligent choreographic instinct has been lost.