Romeo and Juliet: being loyal to the story may mean being a tad disloyal to a discipline

So, with tickets to the Friday night performance of the Milwaukee Ballet doing Romeo and Juliet in hand, I'm reading Tom Strini's review in the paper, and he didn't like it. And I have to admit, I had my worries. After all, the story is as old as dirt, and the original telling of it was by a guy generally regarded as one of the greatest wordsmiths ever, and Shakespeare's version still holds up. So I'm wondering how to nonverbally tell a story that, well, is famous for its beautiful wordplay.

Strini's main complaint was that there wasn't enough dancing. Oh, this is going to sound cliche, like I'm one of those Rick Springfield fans who got mad at the rock critic that hated the Rick Springfield concert, but really, I think Strini and I saw two totally different performances.

Or maybe the thing is that Strini's a dance critic, and I'm -- as I've often said here -- a lover of a good story, well told, no matter what methodology is used. So I'm not measuring exactly how many bona fide dance steps there were. I'm measuring how well the story was told, and if Artistic Director Michael Pink has to veer away from pure dance for the sake of the story, so be it. And honestly, I don't think he veered that far.

As Strini commented, Act 1, where we pretty much establish everybody, is really dancey. The part of Juliet was danced by Julianne Kepley, on loan from the Joffrey Ballet. Apparently Pink had choreographed his Juliet for her, and you can tell why: this woman was successful at establishing from the get go the uncontrolled passion and lust for life a teenage girl has, and at the same time, Kepley radiates a gracefulness that explains exactly why anybody -- Romeo, Paris, Joe Blow on the streets of Verona -- would fall for her instantly. But here's the thing, in Act II, there's cacophony: a carnival interrupted by violence and swordplay. The Quentin Tarantino fan in me didn't think there was enough fighting! And the Quentin Tarantino fan in me knows that the person who coordinates the fight scenes is called the fight choreographer. And that's why I disagree with Strini. The story at this point isn't about beautiful elegant dancing. The story is about bloodshed and violence. It called for swordplay. The story called for a fight choerographer. OK, so they didn't bring in Jackie Chan to choreograph the fights. This is the ballet, after all! It was as dancey as one could get without diluting the impact of the events on the story.

By Act III, it all comes back, and its the part where I really think Strini and I saw two different shows. Romeo and Juliet's one night together is wonderfully, beautifully, and erotically danced. Its a wonderful transformation, especially for Douglas McCubbin's Romeo, who, up until this point brought to mind a giddy, happy, Justin Timerlake boyish charm. They get out of bed and you're like, Wow, Justin Timberlake has been lifting weights! When did HE turn into a man? And Kepley's brilliance as a dancing actress shines through, as her Juliet goes absolutely stiff when being courted by the clueless Paris. (You kind of feel sorry for Paris: he's not evil, he doesn't know what's going on, he just wants to marry Juliet and just two days earlier she had no objection to this idea at all!) You can see Juliet simply going through the motions, and while she's graceful, she's just not into it. You feel for her trying to fake it, and finally giving it up.

And there are wonderful snippets of all the side stories that, even without words, scream Shakespearian trademark. You don't have time, in dance, to tell them all, but if you've studied ol Bill for any length of time (as an English major, I pulled my required two semesters of the Bard), you know that half the fun of any Shakespeare is the subplots. The relationship of Lady Capulet to Tybolt -- is Lord Capulet (danced by badass Christopher Fellows) onto this? The friendship of Romeo and Mercutio -- are they just friends? Is Juliet's nurse more of a "mom" than Lady Capulet? And what's up with all those monks? The whole thing reminded me of Pink's Dracula in that I want to see it again to catch all these subtleties I missed.

So, sorry Tom, and other dance purists. I thought Pink's telling of the story was loyal to the story, and thusly, I loved it.

Stella was enthralled. She knew going in this was a sad story, but I kind of made bit light of it so it wouldn't be so heavy on her: "So yeah," I'm telling Stella over a pre-dance dinner at the Rock Bottom Brewery, "Juliet has this 'brilliant' idea to drink the fake poison and fake everybody out, but she doesn't bother confirming that Romeo got the message and was in on the plan, so Romeo thinks she's really dead, he kills himself in grief, and Juliet finds out he did that and, well, [homer simpson voice]DOH!!!!!![/homer simpson voice]" Except that now I seem to have left Stella with the wrong lesson, not that "It's stupid for families to hold a grudge when they can't remember what they were pissed at each other about", no, this lesson is more about "Make sure everybody on your team is on the same page before you (literally) execute your plan." Then again, the former lesson is one wise people have been trying to pound into humanity's heads for centuries, and few people have learned it, while the latter is something that's, well, easily implemented.

So ends another season of the Milwaukee Ballet. After Shatner, we confirmed that we want another season of this, that's for sure. And Tom, they're starting off next season with the Bard again (Hamlet), so don't get all bent out of shape if they actually pause to make sure the story makes sense. I'm actually curious to see how the "To Be or Not To Be" soliliquy is going to get read nonverbally.


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