Teens on Shakespeare: “Snooze.” Teens on Shakespeare-inspired ballets: “Double snooze.” But wait! Teens on pop music: “Aw yeah, more please, can’t get enough!” Surely some Lady Gaga could pep up the Bard’s boring plays, right? And some street moves could make a ballet seem cool, right? RIGHT?
So goes the simplistic line of thinking behind this production of Romeo and Juliet, a self-professed ‘ballet with a 21st-century twist.’ (Read: ‘desperate to be hip to the kids.’) Choreographed by Adrienne Canterna under the banner of her husband Rasta Thomas’ (he of the Bad Boys of Dance fame) company, the show attempts to jazz up the story of star-crossed lovers by peppering its ballet base with flashy high kicks and Gaga-era tunes. It’s the directorial equivalent of a parent trying to sneak broccoli into their toddler’s mac and cheese in the hopes the kid will unwittingly start to love greens, and put simply it doesn’t work. How could it when both the veggies and the pasta in this analogy are so utterly undercooked?
Canterna isn’t the first choreographer to furnish Shakespeare’s tragic tale with unconventional touches in recent months: in 2014 Mats Ek gave us Juliet & Romeo, which reinterprets the couple’s relationship using an urban landscape and contemporary technique; Northern Ballet, meanwhile, just became the first UK company to perform Jean-Christophe Maillot’s version, which amplifies the friar’s role and favours theatrical touches like puppets. Canterna’s take doesn’t have a quite so cohesive aesthetic; it’s a fragmented mish-mash of styles and tones, flitting chaotically between balletic phrases and commercial routines, classical notes and pop anthems, traditional costuming and clubwear. Factor in the staccato set-up – the story is told through 24 bite-size sketches, each with a different setting and soundtrack – and you’re left with a rather discordant production, one that feels better suited to a cruise ship than West End stage.
Fortunately, the show has some quality dancers to keep it afloat. Anna Gerberich (Juliet) is fresh-faced and limber as all get out, punching out effortless extension after effortless extension. I only wish she’d had more classical material to work with as that’s clearly her strong suit; the sundry contemporary phrases she’s assigned (among them a cringeworthy hyperactive jazz-lyrical solo to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”) fall regrettably flat. Her chemistry with Pete Leo Walker’s charismatic Romeo is one of the production’s strongest assets: the pair’s moonlit love scene, dotted with delicate partnerwork and several convincingly passionate kisses, is sweet and stirring. (It helps that Des’ree’s “Kissing You” accompanies their tryst – a canny nod to the song’s appearance in Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 film adaptation of the play). Ryan Carlson (Tybalt) too proves a crowd-pleaser thanks to his proficient acrobatics, and I’d be remiss not to mention Grace Buckley’s (Nurse) beautiful lines and expressive face.
Still, despite these and the other six dancers’ respective strengths, there’s only so much goodwill they can inspire when the majority of the choreography they’re tasked with is bland and far less imaginative than it purports to be. The ballet phrases are by and large decent, but for every pretty glissade-jete comes a tide of formulaic jazz sequences that fall decidedly short of the commercial dance moves they aim to emulate. To be frank, I’ve seen more inspired choreography and creative use of tempo in a Zumba class.
The dancers also have to contend with one-dimensional characterisations – Tybalt, for example, is reduced to an all-brawn, no-brain thug who fist-bumps his bros and frequently cups his genitals – and an erratic soundtrack that undermines its own claims to a ’21st-century twist’ by counting The Police and The Righteous Brothers among its so-called contemporary picks. To be fair, most of the songs skew firmly classical (Vivaldi, Prokofiev) or circa 2010-11 (LMFAO, Usher, AWOLnation), but the mix is inconsistent all the same, and prone to anachronistic clashes – take the wedding scene, which is described in the programme notes as having a ‘bohemian, 60s-inspired, Woodstock, Aquarius feel’ yet is set to Lady Gaga’s 2011 single “The Edge of Glory,” itself a tribute to late 80s pop.
Perhaps the show’s biggest flaw is that its efforts centre on increasing the palatability of Romeo and Juliet’s story rather than its relatability, a move that patronises audiences and needlessly weakens what‘s already proven a popular narrative in the dance world (there are some 80 choreographic versions of the play). Bar the absence of the lovers’ warring parents and Paris’ exaggerated role, there’s no fresh take on the plot here; instead Canterna inundates it with a bright, glitzy, slightly hysterical edge, paradoxically undermining the very gravity that makes it a resonant tale. How seriously can a viewer take the couple’s suicide when one minute later they spring from their death to join the rest of the cast in a jazztastic finale set to My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade?” Without Shakespeare’s high drama, the story becomes less tragic romance and more watery rom-com – a form associated with accessibility, perhaps, but not staying power.