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Dance renders words unnecessary in Joffrey’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

If you think Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is all about words, think again. Not a single word is spoken in choreographer Krzysztof Pastor’s ballet version of the play, and yet by any measure his work might just be the most eloquent, rapturous, emotionally searing “translation” of the story you will ever see.

As danced with breathtaking brilliance Thursday night by the Joffrey Ballet – which has brought the work back to the Auditorium Theatre for the first time since its 2014 debut by the company – this familiar story seems altogether new. Its characters spring to life with such youthful passion and futile enmity, such profound desperation and bitter remorse, that you will never think of them in quite the same way again. And as sublime as the members of the Joffrey are as dancers, they also happen to be remarkable as actors. Just watch their faces.

Highly recommended
When: Through Oct. 23
Where: Auditorium Theatre,
50 E. Congress
Tickets: $34 – $174
Info: (312) 386-8905;
Run time: 2 hours and
10 minutes with one intermission

Yoshihisa Arai (in white) is Mercutio and Temur Suluashvili is Tybalt in the Joffre Ballet production of Krzysztof's "Romeo and Juliet," at the Auditorium Theatre. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Yoshihisa Arai (in white) is Mercutio, and Temur Suluashvili (in black) is Tybalt in the Joffrey Ballet production of Krzysztof Pastor’s “Romeo and Juliet,” at the Auditorium Theatre. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Mounted as part of this year’s citywide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, this “Romeo and Juliet” is a remarkable reminder that dance and music are languages with the power to move the human heart in ways that reach well beyond iambic pentameter. Of course Pastor’s exquisitely gestural choreography – combined with Tatyana Van Walsum’s dynamic multimedia set (lit by Bert Dalhuysen) that features black-and-white archival film of Italy at various times during the 20th century – have a rhythm all their own, and both are seamlessly interwoven with Prokofiev’s astonishing score, which captures the many moods of Shakespeare’s play with scene-by-scene precision that is pure genius.

In fact, if you leave the theater thinking you have just seen a hypnotic work of cinema, you will not be far off the mark. But then it hits you: You have been watching living, breathing human beings whose mastery of their art is awe-inspiring in this ballet that  shows every sign of becoming a Joffrey signature piece.

The chemistry between Rory Hohenstein’s Romeo and Christine Rocas’ Juliet is something special, but also is deeply rooted in the choreography. For example, there are winningly comic little moments early on when they are clearly so infatuated with each other that their bodies twist in order to catch a fleeting glimpse of the other. Their balcony scene is a marvel of playful testing and youthful desire that grows into love. And their death scene is stunning in its lean intensity.

The two also are riveting in their dreamy solo dancing and interaction with others. Rocas, a delicate beauty who brings an exquisite clarity and simplicity to her dancing (just watch her arms), expertly limns her relationship with her tyrannical, fascistic father (the ever-imposing Fabrice Calmels), and mother (April Daly, whose elegance is paired with great maternal empathy). And when she is compelled to choose a husband (Graham Maverick as Paris), her revulsion is palpable. Hohenstein, a dancer of immense poetry and lyricism, moves with such fluidity that he seems melded to the music, and his partnering of Rocas is ideal.

It is for two of the company’s other sensational male dancers to capture the ferocity between the Capulet and Montague families at the root of the tragedy here. Yoshihisa Arai is a knockout as Romeo’s friend, Mercutio, the unstoppably mocking, teasing, seriously mischievous fellow who clearly loathes the Montagues, most notably the angry, haughty Tybalt, danced with a uniquely demonic edge by Temur Suluashvili. The two engage in some of the ballet’s most difficult duets, and together they create a thrilling sense of escalating danger.

Amanda Assucena and Anastacia Holden dance with great vibrancy as Juliet’s friends, as does Alberto Velazquez as Romeo’s friend, Benvolio. Dylan Gutierrez makes an intriguing Friar Lawrence, bearer of the sleeping potion. And the large ensemble that animates the streets of urban Italy is winning in its energy and individual portrayals within the crowd.

While the view of Italy in each act moves from the rise of fascism in the 1930s, to the post-war devastation and rebirth of the 1950s, to several decades later, Pastor has given us no literal historical chronicle. Rather, he suggests the enduring nature of deadly antagonisms, with Romeo and Juliet as the heartbreaking emblems of the insanity.

One final note: While I rarely single out “donors,” the Joffrey’s supporters of live music, who make the presence of the Chicago Philharmonic possible, are Marina and Arnold Tatar, and Cheryle and Joel V. Williamson. They could not have made a more ideally targeted contribution. And the orchestra, under the impeccable direction of Scott Speck, played with great power, melding with the dancers at every moment.

Christine Rocas stars in the Joffrey Ballet production of "Romeo and Juliet," at the Auditorium Theatre through Oct. 23. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Christine Rocas stars as Juliet in the Joffrey Ballet production of “Romeo and Juliet,” at the Auditorium Theatre through Oct. 23. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

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