Verona is not fair, especially for Juliet. She has no friends, parents, support and no autonomy. Decidedly Jazz Danceworks reclaims this classic in the name of Juliet’s individuality and power. In Juliet & Romeo, the women are reclaiming this classically male-dominated play and throwing every expectation of Shakespearian tradition out the window.
Firstly the scene has to be set, of course with the literal set, made solely of scaffolding, holding up the band and looming over the dancers throughout the production. It was fitting for the set, as the producers and masterminds behind this play built this gorgeous work from the ground up. It is simple and doesn’t distract from the real stars of the play: the dancers (Scott Augustine, Cassandra Bowerman, Sabrina Comanescu, Rob Clutton, Jared Bell, Jason Owin F. Galeos, Catherine Hayward, Kaja Irwin, Shayne Johnson, Kaleb Tekeste) and the narrator (Natasha Kourtney).
The costume designer, Sarah Doucet, produced confusing but ultimately gorgeous costumes. The variety Doucet used was sickening, the fabrics clashed in a raunchy, intriguing way. The costumes in themselves were incredibly interesting to look at, sequins were mixed with lace, lingerie complimented masculine blazers, loose-fitting and tight outfits created texture across the entire stage. The colours and fabrics were strangely mixed, but the experimental nature of the costumes was a huge asset to the play. One would expect neat, safe outfits for such a classic work, but Doucet completely flipped the aesthetic expectations of Shakespearian plays on their head.
Once the scene was set and the costumes were on, the dancers came into focus.
Kourtney absolutely shines in this production as the narrator. She is poised, yet witty; she is sexy and risque while being sophisticated and intriguing. Kourtney controls the production from the minute the lone spotlight hits her face to the moment the lights come up during the final applause. She plays a puppet master, narrating the scenes with wit, humour and assertion. Her ability to dance and narrate while never breaking character was truly mystifying to watch. The range of emotion Kourtney portrayed was mesmerizing, she was angry then gentle, loud then soft-spoken, alluring then vulnerable. She was an absolute knock-out in every respect, her performance truly stole the show. Aside from the fascinating narration, the dancing was unbelievable, she was erotic yet so calculated and concise. Kourtney blew this production out of the water by herself but was hugely complimented by the accompanying dancers.
No dancer is specifically Romeo and no dancer is assigned to Juliet. This allows the dancers to be fluid and portray emotions, like honesty and truth, as opposed to static characters. They are reworking Shakespeare as we know it, by changing the audience’s conceptual understanding of theatre. Juliet & Romeo embodies the opposite of what Shakespearian tradition demands. Previously it demanded hierarchies, it demanded strictly heterosexual interactions and it demanded a masculine narrative.
A particular highlight of this production is it’s experimental efforts to engage the audience uniquely. Whether you like or hate re-workings, this performance challenged the audience in every respect, which is hard to come by especially with plays as iconic as Shakespeare’s.
“The Shoe Show” stood out as almost random, but it grew on me as a viewer. Bell, Comanescu, Bowerman, Galeos and Augustine wore funky socks and shoes on their hands, which seems odd to say the least, but somehow they pulled it off. It was interesting and different, the hands in shoes became personas of their own; moving in certain expressive ways and interacting with each other as if they were actual people.
The audience was also kept engaged by the humour, even in the face of death. When Mercutio (Johnson) dies in a brawl, he takes his sweet time dying. He falls this way and that, flipping off other characters and poking fun at them as he meets his demise. His humour was subtle but ultimately added a light-heartedness to the tragedy. Kourtney aids in the humour of the production as well, her pick up lines are relatable and witty, such as “are you from Tennessee? Because you’re the only ten I see” or the classic, “did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”. The modern language and relatable content keeps the audience cracking up and interested in the production from start to finish.
Gender roles are completely reimagined in Juliet & Romeo. The women are strong and reclaim the narrative of the play. Their dancing is sensual and unapologetic, the women take charge and dominate both acts.
The best way to analogize how Decidedly Jazz Danceworks gives women power is by having them claim animalistic howling. This may seem out of place considering Romeo and Juliet is usually in an urban centre, but it was integrated into the production to symbolize masculinity. The male dancers open with howling and rowdy dancing, it seemed fitting and a tool to characterize Romeo’s band of boys. However, the relevance of howling completely changes when in the concluding scenes the women are howling and banding together. Something that seemed so subtle turned into such an important part of this play, accentuating the meticulous thought and analysis that went into this reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The ode to Juliet at the end of the second act was breathtaking. “Gentle Night” danced by Bowerman and Johnson was stunning, sensual and emotional. It was a lowly lit love scene, which brought out the humility and innocence of the star crossed lovers. It was fascinating to watch, the family feud, the death of friends and the chaos that preceded this scene washed away. Bowerman and Johnson reduced Juliet and Romeo’s love to simply that, two lovers that were at the wrong place at the wrong time. The simplicity challenged the audience to reconsider this iconic love story and question; were Romeo and Juliet really all they were cracked up to be? Or were they just two kids in love?
Lastly, the “Open Letter to Juliet” was a beautiful homage to womanhood, to the injustices women have faced and still do face. Kourtney told a difficult truth, that Juliet was robbed of a childhood, she was robbed of autonomy and a chance in the world. Hayward could not have danced more incredibly. Her strength was showcased in the bar work she did across the scaffolding, she was powerful and controlled the stage. This strength was contrasted with delicate movements, as Kourtney’s momentous words washed over the audience.
The dancing was accompanied by a four-piece band. The music was a spectacle in itself, it was so fitting for every dance and blended perfectly into the production. Because only Kourtney spoke more than a couple of lines, the music was left to tell the story. It was eerie at times, then would quickly turn upbeat only to veer in another direction moments later. This production would have been lost without the jazz music that unified the entire show.
Juliet & Romeo was an absolute knock-out. It was experimental, to say the least, but the risks they took paid off. The gender reworkings, the humour and wit all played to the productions appeal.