Rethinking Shakespeare: Juliet & Romeo at the Performing Arts Centre

Photo Credit: Scott Reid

Photo Credit: Scott Reid

Juliet & Romeo by Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (DJD) is a fresh take on the timeless Shakespeare tale, The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Kimberly Cooper is the Artistic Director of DJD. She says that audience members from all walks of life can find something to enjoy about this bold reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s renowned play.

“I think that this piece is very audience-friendly, Romeo and Juliet is a very, very loved and classic tale so you already know what you are getting yourself into when the lights go off and the stage lights go on,” said Cooper.

As much as audience members know what to expect, this take on Romeo and Juliet is unlike any other. The integration of dance and jazz, along with a completely reinterpreted script and interesting character composure, sets this production apart.

“It’s a beautiful show, there are ten beautiful dancers and an incredible four-piece band, so it’s not just a theatre production, it is a dance production and also a jazz concert,” said Cooper. “There is something for everyone, it is a twist on the tale, it has more of a focus on Juliet. There isn’t one person who plays Romeo and one person who plays Juliet, the characters all play all the roles.”

The script has been reimagined to appeal to modern audiences and revitalize the play as a whole.

“The only actual text we use from the play is the Queen Mab speech. Otherwise, what is said has been changed to slam poetry and pick up lines,” said Cooper. “The text has been heavily adapted to make it more contemporary. I know that when we performed it originally in Calgary, high school teachers were really excited about it because it was different because it was very accessible to their students.”

Although there is something for everyone in Juliet & Romeo, DJD’s revamped production appeals to students and younger audiences because of it’s daring choice to reevaluate and reanalyse Juliet’s narrative.

“It gives students a different buy into the play, there is something about the focus on Juliet, we don’t really say anything that wasn’t said in the play, it is just that it [Juliet’s narrative] is not usually what is focused on and in this moment in time, it is about time we focus on Juliet.”

A new feminist focus on Juliet is just one perspective in this production. There are many other layers in Juliet & Romeo. Audience members may look forward to the dance, music or classic tale, but Cooper challenges her audience to dive deeper into the production.

“If you just go for the surface, it can be beautiful and flawless and attractive in that way but if you know something about jazz music you can dive a little deeper and enjoy the piece in a different way. If you love to dance, then that is another entry point. If you love Shakespeare, then you are going to be very curious about the translation,” said Cooper.

Presenting such an iconic tale came with its ups and downs. There is a stigma around plays, namely that those who have withstood the test of time like many of Shakespeare’s works have been redone too many times or that they couldn’t possibly be reinterpreted in an exciting way. However, Cooper managed to do just that. With the help of her team and the choice to radically adapt a preexisting work, Cooper made the classic reach new heights.

Romeo and Juliet has been done by every ballet company since the beginning of time, so it is a great story so there are lots of ways it can be translated. That was part of the draw for me, usually, my work has a hint of a narrative but to be working with something that was already written was lovely because the way I work, the music and dance are usually being written at the same time,” said Cooper.

As difficult as it is to retell an old tale, recreating Shakespeare came with a silver lining that put Cooper ahead.

“It is hard going in on day one with a band you only get for a limited time because it is expensive to work with live music, if you go in on day one saying ‘I think this piece is going to be about this’, it is a very different experience when you go in on day one and say ‘there is going to be a love scene, there will be a fight scene and there will be a death scene’,” said Cooper. “With this piece I was able to walk in on the first day with the full score, it puts you that much further ahead because my work is very musical. That is an element of jazz, that the music and the dance come together. People often say DJD is visual music or music for the eyes.”

If the restructuring of an entire play was not unique enough, the musical ensemble in the production will definitely surprise audiences. The choice of working with live music adds another daring aspect to this already bold production.

“The music was written and is directed by Nick Fraser, who is a drummer from Toronto. The ensemble is drums, bass, trombone and violin, which is an interesting combination of sounds,” said Cooper. “Sometimes it is very haunting, sometimes it is very eerie, sometimes it is very beautiful. There are a lot of interesting time signatures in the work, but it also very groovy. It is contemporary jazz, but it is also very accessible.”

The marriage of dance and music compliment each other in the production, despite the usually free-flowing and unpredictable nature of jazz music. Cooper stated that the piece has been fun to do so many times as the music and dance go well together.

“Jazz musicians are trained to never play the exact same way, sometimes it is really hard for them to do a dance show like this because there are more parameters on what they have to constant with,” said Cooper. “Feel and form are law, and within that, there is a little bit of freedom. I am digging how the show shifts nightly, and how that filters through the dancer’s bodies. There is a sense of improvisation to their interpretations.”

The music and choreography star in the show, but the script is also a piece of art audiences should be eager to see unfold. Cory Bowles, who many may know from playing Cory in Trailer Park Boys, was an instrumental part of this production. He adapted Shakespeare’s script into a modern take on the classic piece.

From the music to the dance to the adapted script, Juliet & Romeo is bound to present a never-before-seen take on Shakespeare’s classic play.

Juliet & Romeo will be at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on November 14, 2019, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at https://firstontariopac.ca.

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