Angelin Preljocaj's Romeo and Juliet

Sadler's Wells, London, October 4th 2000

"Romeo and Juliet" is one of the signature pieces of French-Albanian choreographer Preljocaj. It's set to Prokofiev's dramatic ballet score and retells the familiar Shakespeare plot set in a dictatorship like the old communist states of Eastern Europe. Rather than family conflict, the lovers are separated by class distinctions and militia protecting the haves from the have-nots.

The set is more elaborate than most contemporary dance can budget for, dominated by a wall with armed guard patrolling the top. The choreographer contrasts these harsh surroundings not by romance but eroticism, influenced by George Orwell's 1984 where the "big brother"-state seeks to control sexual drive as much as thoughts and emotions. From their very first meeting, Romeo seems consumed with desires, whereas Juliet at first refuses his passion and demands romantic kissing. (Interestingly, the dance critic of The Times read the scene quite differently, describing Juliet as sexually aggressive. She did not comment on Romeo's violence at their first meeting. Does she accept a depiction of sexually agressive men more easily than a similar image of a woman?)

Much of the choreography is structured by repetition, especially the militia sequences are relatively short and repeated, giving an impression of formality and human beings stuck in a pattern of aggressive attacks and stiff poses. It is danced with the precision the impacts demand. On the negative side, the frequent repetitions can loose the viewer's interest. The score was so strong and came with so many associations that the by repetitions diminished impact of the dance eventually felt like the weaker voice of an unevenly balanced choir.

The great love duet (corresponding to the bard's "Balcony scene") is a very impressive piece of dance, it alone would almost be worth the ticket. The dancers for once overpower the emotions of the music with smooth, fast doublework, lifts and turns.

The killing of Mercutio is another strong scene, but here the dance leaves the drama plot by omitting the second murder. One of the effects of this is that compared to the drama, Preljocaj's Juliet does not go through any big personal trauma regarding the relationship with Romeo. The choreographer may want a focus on the social issues rather on the personal, but one of the effects is to loose out nuances of Juliet's feelings and thoughts, making her seem one-dimensional.

The Orwelsk theme of control through repression of sexuality does not seem very relevant to Western audiences - generally sexually liberated, but still feeling more or less manipulated or controlled by the new powers of media - whether it is government spin doctors, obvious corporation advertising or hidden public relations efforts. Indeed looking at any magazine shelf seems to hint that sex as divertisement also is a tool of control. Visionary as Orwel was, this theme of his novel does not seem to have come true today, and I can't see why Preljocaj wants to base so much of his "Romeo and Juliet" on Orwelsk desires rather than Shakespearean emotions.


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