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The Timelessness of Romeo and Juliet

From stage to screen — By Paola Dicelli

In the wake of Angelin Preljocaj and Jean-Claude Gallotta, in 2007, German choreographer, Sasha Waltz, created a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s play for the Paris Opera Ballet. Using Berlioz’s music, she combined opera and dance in a soberly refined decor, divested of the figurative forms of the classical version. A modernityalso adopted by cinema.


Written in 1597, Romeo and Juliet is probably William Shakespeare’s most celebrated play, and his pair of lovers have become a myth. Modern versions, in the world of ballet and of cinema alike, have thus retained its key elements… all the better to remould them.

From the very opening of Sasha Waltz’s ballet, one can recognise the rivalry between the two families. Whilst Verona is no more than an evocation (a simple, bare stage), the Montagues and Capulets on the other hand are perfectly identifiable. The two clans, dressed in black and white, confront each other with highly controlled movements. As if they were pawns on a chessboard. A similar arrangement is to be found in Robert Wise’s 1964 film, West Side Story. The Jets and the Sharks, two gangs whose respective origins oppose them (Puerto Rican and white American), confront each other on a basketball court. As in Waltz’s piece, a geometrically defined space represents the battlefield. Although their urban dress does not distinguish one gang from another, their hair colour, dark or blond, indicating their respective origins, allows the spectator to distinguish them.

Roméo + Juliette, Baz Luhrmann, 1996, with Claire Danes and Leonardo Di Caprio
Roméo + Juliette, Baz Luhrmann, 1996, with Claire Danes and Leonardo Di Caprio © Collection Christophel - Bazmark Films / Twentieth Century Fox

In choosing Berlioz’s Symphonie dramatique with its chorus, Waltz introduces her production with a prologue which tells the story even before it unfolds on stage. In contrast, the dance itself is less linear, more rooted in emotion than in narrative (although the latter is still present). In his 1996 film, Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann used the same device of a prologue: a journalist explains, reality show-style, the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets. She is only present to situate the action, in Verona, whereas the town represented in the film looks more like Miami, complete with beach and palm trees. Whether in the use of a chorus or the media, both directors break away from the classical image of the “preface” in order to project their own interpretations.

This intention takes on even greater significance during the ball scene. Sasha Waltz dresses her dancers in tutus, “caricatures” of classical dance, whilst leaving their feet bare. The comic effect and the mockery of classical forms are explicit. A similar comic device is to be found in Romeo + Juliet: although the film is set in modern times, Romeo dresses up as a knight and Juliet as an angel, both clichés of what they represent (Juliet – purity; Romeo – the love-struck youth). Furthermore, in the ballet, the dancers line up and mime having supper in rapid, mechanical movements. As with the accelerated shots during the ball in Romeo + Juliet, which symbolise its debauchery, one can easily interpret this as a criticism of high society. It is the meeting of the two lovers that effaces the depravity, restoring it to purity.

West Side Story, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961
West Side Story, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961 © Collection Christophel

In West Side Story, although the Jets and the Sharks confront each other through dance, the instant the lovers’ eyes meet, the background slips out of focus. Whatever is going on around them, nothing seems to affect them anymore. As they draw near to one another, they touch each other’s faces and understand finally they are two kindred spirits. The choreographer also uses this idea of corporeal discovery but adds a new, more modern element: it is Juliet who makes the first move! A feminist angle which perhaps echoes John Madden’s film Shakespeare in Love (1999). Even if he does not directly treat the story of Romeo and Juliet but rather the fictional genesis of Shakespeare’s writing, (the doomed love between Shakespeare and a young woman who is betrothed to another), the meeting between the playwright and his muse is original. It happens not at the ball – which takes place later – but in a theatre. Shakespeare falls for her charms when she is disguised as a man so as to be able to act in his play (acting, at the time, was forbidden for women). Gone is the long hair and the femininity characteristic of Juliet: the heroine of Shakespeare in Love, at the beginning at least, wears breeches and a moustache!

Finally, it is worth noting that the most famous scene, the balcony scene, is also given this contemporary treatment: in the ballet, the white stage is raised up, in West Side Story, a New York tenement fire escape reunites the two lovers and in Luhrmann, Juliette comes down from the balcony … in the lift.

Although the end remains ineluctably tragic, whatever the version, each artist reinvents the myth so as to integrate it into her/his artistic universe, thus demonstrating the timelessness of Verona’s “star-crossed lovers”.

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