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How do you imbue the most timeless and undeniably trite classic of all time with new life? For Mats Ek, it starts with Segway scooters and tattoo sleeves.

The Swedish choreographer is no stranger to revision; adaptations of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty are among his most notable works. So when it came time to flip the script on Romeo and Juliet, he did so quite literally, by inverting the title.

Enter Juliet and Romeo. The North American premiere of the ballet, which has had Europe buzzing since its release in 2013, began its run at the Kennedy Center Wednesday. Ek has re-purposed the classic for the Royal Swedish Ballet, the fourth-oldest ballet company in the world. Old as the troupe and their relationship with Ek may be, there’s a new life in this iteration that can’t be denied.

It’s not so much an ode to modernity as it is fully contemporary. Dancers rock boat neck long sleeves, marled tees, cut-off hoodies, and acid wash jeans that could’ve been ripped directly from H&M shelves. And when the Capulet minions first roll onto the stage on motorized scooters, Ek’s neoteric vision is apparent.

The archetypal angst of the source material remains, and there’s an emphasis on the societal constructs that keep the protagonists apart (Ek says much of the story was influenced by the events of the Arab Spring).

Royal Swedish Ballet, Juliet and Romeo

Royal Swedish Ballet, Juliet and Romeo

Try to imagine the Shakespearean classic set in a sort of urban dystopia. The opening scene’s matte black stage design and smoky lighting take you there. Dancer-manipulated walls are rearranged, deconstructed, and have a kaleidoscopic quality to them. They create new rooms, pathways, and ramparts out of large metallic panels.

The choreography has a freewheeling quality to it that stands in stark contrast to my limited stereotypical conception of what ballet is. Expecting elaborate and elegant twirls, I was surprised to find the action to be more emotive and singular. It’s freeing, not formulaic. For the characters, every movement and shudder of the leg muscles seems cathartic.

Royal Swedish Ballet, Juliet and Romeo

Royal Swedish Ballet, Juliet and Romeo

When the players danced in tandem, their moves were almost always reactionary. Bodies intertwining, they paused, they connected, and they reacted. You really get a sense of how one person’s movement speaks to another when one body freezes in place and the other body answers. It’s a move employed often throughout the play.

You want a mental image? The therapeutic and unencumbered catharsis on display really makes me want to draw comparisons to Kevin Bacon’s Footloose flash dance scene, in all of the best ways. Just without the 80s jams and instead to a composite collection of Tchaikovsky’s work.

To that note, the work from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra was remarkable, a single horn allowed to linger as moods shift. The cuts and edits in the score could come off as a bit disjointed, but they’re terse, injecting new color and atmosphere in one quick turn.

Romeo (Anthony Lomuljo) was acceptable if not fully convincing, able to convey a deep yearning but not much emotional depth beyond that. There was a moment when he engaged in a saucy little hip hop shimmy that I felt most drawn to his character and felt a spark instead of just a wistful sigh.

Casting a burnt orange light over their female lead, Juliet’s solitary moments reveal both narcissism and naïveté. But Mariko Kida’s facial expressions could’ve been the most striking thing about the play. At no point were you unaware of her privately held sentiments.

I was quite taken with Mercutio (Jerome Marchand) and Benvolio (Hokuto Kodama), their interplay often providing comedic relief. Marchand cast a menacing figure, with sprawling sternum tattoos, racing around the stage with a maniacal abandon, indulging his unfettered but playful homoerotic urges. Clearly a crowd favorite, the dude was flat out hilarious at points. Benvolio, impish with sauntering, sulking shoulders, his regard for the protagonists was genuine and his spritely effervescent charm was infectious.
Royal Swedish Ballet, Juliet and Romeo

Royal Swedish Ballet, Juliet and Romeo

Rounding out the exemplary supporting cast was Ana Laguna’s portrayal of The Nurse, the overseer, the character you felt always knew most about what was really going down. In the second act, her Segway stroll on the stage with a comically gold bicycle helmet was as regal as her understated performance.
Aside from some strong closing imagery evoking solidarity, the final scenes underwhelmed. Romeo and Juliet’s final entanglement lacked the wonder and unique sense of discovery found in Ek’s interpretation of the balcony scene. The first act is brimming with impassioned intrigue, while the remaining forty-five minutes pace unerringly, jockeying between disparate scenes toward the denouement.
Royal Swedish Ballet, Juliet and Romeo

Royal Swedish Ballet, Juliet and Romeo

You’ll certainly laugh, you probably won’t cry (you know what happens), but you’ll be struck by the strong juxtaposition of modern love, modern toys, and modern dance in the face of antiquated opposition.
Juliet and Romeo runs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from June 1-4. For tickets and more information, visit The Kennedy Center site.
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