There’s no way around it: We are living in a violent, hate-infested world, where moral bankruptcy can—and often does—lead to heinous crimes, and humanity takes another collective plunge into an unfathomable abyss. In other words, the city of Orlando, Florida, will no longer be thought of as a theme park utopia (home to Disney World, Sea World, Universal and the like), but as the site of an unspeakable tragedy.
All the more reason, then, to seek solace in art.
Certainly many works of Shakespeare have mined love, hate, jealousy and murder, perhaps best exemplified in his enduring tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet.” For Mats Ek, the 71-year old award-winning choreographer who not only gave the world a feminist heroine in his 2013 re-imagined “Juliet & Romeo,” made for the Royal Swedish Ballet, but who also said he had been inspired by events that triggered the Arab Spring.
In other words, cue rancor, terror and, in this rendering, Segways!
Seen this past weekend in its West Coast debut, with members of the Pacific Symphony, under the able baton of Eva Ollikainen, performing a pastiche of Tchaikovsky works that had been sliced, diced and arranged by Anders Högstedt, this “J & R” was dark, dense and doom-inducing, with nary a chandelier or velvet-clad player in sight. It did, however, feature some spectacular dancing by the troupe that hadn’t visited this coast in more than 15 years.
Performed on Magdalena Åberg’s minimalist set of moveable, corrugated panels—alternately resembling a train, soul-constricting barricades or all-encompassing walls that provide makeshift hiding places for marauding gangs in any modern city, war-torn or otherwise—the cast was world-class. It was led by Mariko Kida’s sublime Juliet, Anthony Lomuljo’s ardent, dreamy-eyed lover and an astonishing Ana Laguna as the Nurse.
Ek’s wife and muse, Laguna, 61, is a compelling presence whose emotional core matches her fierce movement skills, the depth of her musicality also crucial in providing a moral compass to the proceedings.
And what proceedings they were: Ek imbued the choreography with his signature stretchy lunges, Martha Graham-like contractions and pliant torsos, with troupe members the picture of diversity—size and age-wise—who were also capable of executing both a balletic vocabulary and the weighty, grounded moves of modern dance, where flexed feet and second position pliés rule.
Sporting Åberg’s costumes—street clothes, including jeans, hoodies and muscle Tees, with a vague nod to the Renaissance on view in billowed, satiny dresses (at one point a mischievous Juliet seeks shelter under Nurse’s wide swath of skirt)—the dancers stalked the stage, gestured fervently and leaped buoyantly. They even rolled on the floor, as if possessed.
Jérôme Marchand, a shaved-headed Mercutio, was prone to mood swings that even Xanax couldn’t help, proving a passionate macho dude in this urban wasteland. Hokuto Kodama’s playful Benvolio offered some comic relief in this tale that, notable for their absences, featured no Friar, no balcony, no Montagues and no sword fights, with Mercutio’s killing more of an aside than an aggressive plot point.
What Ek does give us, though, is the Capulets patrolling their turf on motorized scooters—Segways—their ramrod-straight stances decidedly police-like. This “J & R” also featured Arsen Mehrabyan as a somewhat impotent father unable to stop the inevitable, metaphorically depicted in a harrowing segment in which he defiantly runs in place, one arm anchoring him to a spooky-looking panel.
Still, at the story’s heart is our star-crossed couple. Kida, wilful, curious and a tad narcissistic may not be all wide-eyed innocence, but in her duets with the frisky Lomuljo, there exists a kind of awe as they are zealously drawn to each other like addicts in search of a fix. Ek, by omitting the sleeping potion and its storied fatal twist, ratchets up the shock quotient when Daddy C—gasp—instead strikes and kills his own daughter because she has again refused her father’s wish that she marry Paris (Oscar Salomonsson), which, it must be said, no amount of running in place could ever have prevented.
Romeo subsequently meets Juliet at her grave, where she returns to life for one brief shining moment and the pair is able to enjoy a last embrace. Finally, the lovers fall headfirst through the stage (Romeo had appeared through this trap door at the story’s start, before symbolically scrambling over those all-purpose walls), their raised legs now emblems of resistance. The other dancers, mourning for the couple en masse, also lay down, elevating their limbs in an expression of solidarity.
A bizarre visual, to be sure, but one not soon forgotten in a performance that also included Daria Ivanova as Rosaline, Dawid Kupinski as Tybalt and Jörgen Stövind’s Peter. With Ek having recently announced that he’d stopped selling the rights to his choreography, this “Juliet & Romeo” seemed a fitting end to an illustrious career.
If only the tragic events of Orlando could be the finale to all horrific massacres in the real world, one in which we preferably embrace the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, when accepting his Tony award for best score for “Hamilton” (the blockbuster hit snagged 11 prizes), read a sonnet that cited “senseless acts of tragedy” and included the repeated words “and love is love, is love, is love, is love.”