So, last night I was able to cross another cultural experience off my “I Want To See More of the World and I Want to Do More Chic and Sophisticated Things” Bucket List. I attended the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Four Seasons Centre. I had been to The Nutcracker as a child, with my grandfather, but I was definitely too young to fully appreciate it, and I remember finding it boring, long and dull. I developed this idea in recent years, however, that my assessment was wrong and that ballets were, in fact, beautiful.
Obviously I was right! When I learned that the National Ballet of Canada was performing Romeo and Juliet for three days only, I rushed to buy tickets. I love Shakespeare, as any hopeless romantic would, and although he isn’t my favourite playwright (that title goes to Tony Kushner because of his masterpiece Angels in America, which I will post a review of very soon) and although Romeo and Juliet isn’t my favourite of his plays (I prefer Twelfth Night for its wit and disturbance of gender norms, as well as Hamlet and Othello), it was the first Shakespearean play I read in grade 9 English class, and so I’m sure it’s in some way responsible for my love of literature and refined speech. I wondered though, when I purchased the ballet tickets, if Shakespeare’s story would remain as poignant and touching if rendered without words, without those powerful soliloquies (think Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech) or those oft-quoted, now cliché lines. Is Shakespeare’s narrative and plot interesting in and of itself, or is it the manner in which he wrote the story that makes it so special?
I can now say with confidence that ballet dancers can express with their bodies exactly what Shakespeare portrayed with his pen. The ballet was gorgeous (even more gorgeous, in my opinion, than the pages of Watchmen that I spoke about in my last post – go figure!) – the sets were simple and minimalistic but full of perspective and designed with muted, neutral tones to showcase the dancers; the costumes were elegant and sumptuous, bright and vibrant. It was the dancers, however, and their flawless, twinkling toes that left me amazed! Every single scene was captivating (so much for ballets being boring!) and exquisitely articulated! The male dancers were strong and fierce (the athleticism of every performer was intimidating and motivating – I actually refrained from eating a cookie during the show, which is proof enough of this fact!), and I particularly loved the moment when Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo (Keiichi Hirano, Christopher Stalzer and Guillaume Côté) sneak into the Capulet party. The men made use of their strength and catapulted each other into the air, and there was some much needed humour in this scene (the audience actually laughed during Romeo and Juliet!).
The true star of the show was Juliet, though. Greta Hodgkinson performed the role to perfection, and I think they could’ve gotten away with calling the show just Juliet. (Sidenote: the novel Juliet by Anne Fortier is incredible, and it outlines the historical relevance of the story of the star-crossed lovers really well.) While watching the ballet, I started to realize that Romeo and Juliet is in fact, at its core, the tale of a young girl growing up (Care for a bildungsroman anyone?!). When we first see Juliet, during the ballet, she is bubbly, a little immature and so cute! She flits around her nurse, dances in excited circles, and cannot contain her juvenile cheer. When she meets her Romeo, there is a moment when everything freezes, their eyes lock, there is un coup de foudre. Then she gets scared and skitters away, trying to avoid the man, the fire, that threatens her innocence. But love gives her strength; she’s more rigid and stiff with Paris than she was with Romeo, and maybe she feels the difference too because she listens to Romeo from her window and she dances with him in the orchard. Now, she is really floating.
She’s almost a completely different woman after love touches her, and the third and final act (after the wedding) is so much about her and her interiority. The morning after her wedding night, she is jubilant with her Romeo – she glows as her white dress shimmers, her raven hair is finally down and it flows around them both. This is in fact the parting that is both sweet and sorrowful. Only this Romeo, this husband, can hold her so high in the air, and I have never seen human toes move so rapidly. She skims but does not touch the ground. Until her Romeo, her lover who is banished into exile, leaves and she literally folds up and crumples to the floor. She is a swan sinking, an angel who has touched heaven but is then dragged down to earth. When Friar Lawrence gives her the sleeping draught, we sense her uncertainty and anxiety in her stilted, short movements. We do not see Romeo visit the true apothecary – instead we follow his wife into the tomb.
And then, tragedy truly strikes. Romeo drinks his sweet poison, and in his last moments of life and vitality, Juliet awakens. In a twist on Shakespeare’s ending, Juliet sees her Romeo again and she is back to being bubbly and uncontainable. She is full of hope, and only we know, with Romeo, in the most heart wrenching case of dramatic irony, that happiness is not to be (See what I did there with that reference to Hamlet?!). Romeo begins to wilt and fade, and then all of a sudden (another coup de foudre, perhaps?) he is gone and it is almost as though Juliet cannot move any longer. Her spark has died, the force and bravery she used to defy her parents and choose her own love story has run out, and she clings to him, resting her whole body on top of him. Such is the end of their story.
Everything was so powerful and moving about this adaptation of a story that has been endlessly remade. The narrative felt new, and I appreciated new aspects of the story that I had never noticed before, like Juliet’s development in particular. There was also a figure lurking in the background of this adaptation: a man or woman shrouded in a grey cloak. This character’s identity was never explained, but my best guess (or actually that of my ballet-going companion) is that he represents death coming for the characters we’d grown so attached to. Either that or he is a reference to Shakespeare, the man who would write the story and allow the National Ballet of Canada to touch our hearts.
May your love never be star-crossed,
Girl with a Green Heart