January 19th, 2021

‘Juliet & Romeo’ turns a familiar tale on its head

By Chris Brown on October 3, 2019.

Photo by Scott Reid
Juliet and Romeo are shown in a scene from Decidedly Jazz Danceworks' "Juliet & Romeo." The show comes to the Esplanade on Oct. 8 at 7:30 p.m.


By any conceivable measure “Romeo & Juliet” is a classic. It’s been presented thousands of different ways in literature and on stage and screen since it was written more than 400 years ago. That can make it difficult to find any sort of fresh take on what is arguably William Shakespeare’s most well-known work.

Kimberley Cooper, artistic director of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, thinks she’s hit on something unique. She brings it to the Esplanade on Oct. 8 for a 7:30 p.m. show.

The story is told through contemporary text in a variety of formats.

“There some slam poetry, a little bit of rap, there’s some spoken world,” Cooper said last week. “The only bit of traditional text we use in the show is the Queen Mab speech, before Romeo and his pals are going to crash the Capulet ball.”

The story was adapted by Cory Bowles, who Cooper describes as a brilliant, hilarious, incredible artist.

The music is of course very different than in the ballet version, and is played live by a quartet on drums, bass, violin and trombone. Cooper said the music is “contemporary jazz and it’s very moving and passionate but also very groovy and grounded.” She said it’s tricky and accessible at the same time and was an inspirational pleasure to create the dancing to.

Obviously the dancing is quite different from the ballet. Jazz dance, Cooper explained, was born of African and European parents as a result of the slave trade in the United States. It followed the same history of jazz music until the late 1940s.

Cooper said one of the missions of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks when it was founded in the 1980s was to reconnect with the traditions.

“It brings a different kind of vitality to the world when those two things find each other again on stage,” she said.

All of this hasn’t even mentioned the most obvious twist. This is “Juliet & Romeo,” not “Romeo & Juliet.”

“I think Juliet’s the more interesting character,” Cooper said. “When we meet her she’s basically a child and by the end she’s been married, lost her virginity, had death in her family and plotted to trick everyone and kill herself so she can run off with the love of her life. But everybody lets her down.

“Romeo had friends Juliet didn’t she had her nurse. Her family has this desire for status and wealth they’re trying to marry to this guy Paris, who is related to the prince and she has no say. There’s lots of things to unpack in that, that Shakespeare I think was saying but the focus usually goes to Romeo.”

All these things together give the show an appeal to a mass audience, Cooper said, saying it’s dance, it’s theatre and it’s a live jazz concert all in one. Plus English teachers have been excited by this new take on the story, giving a new way to potentially introduce students to it.

There’s more.

“Anybody who loves dance or music or doesn’t this is a good starter piece because its accessible and dynamic and physical and funny and tragic of course,” she added.

“People think ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is a story about love but I also think it’s a story about violence. A great entry point for anyone.”

Tickets are available online at tixx.ca, by calling 403-502-8777, and in person at the Esplanade box office or the Medicine Hat Mall guest services desk.

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