The Joffrey’s Romeo and Juliet highlights 2016’s political divide

Christine Rocas and Rory Hohenstein in Romeo and Juliet

By Lauren Ball

With America  in the midst of a political season rife with conflict, confrontation, and discord,  the Joffrey Ballet’s  contemporary interpretation of Romeo and Juliet  is overwhelmingly opportune. Watching the two contending forces of the fascist Capulets and leftist Montagues magnetize their differences and recoil,  it’s impossible not to compare the performance to the presidential race.

The Joffrey performed Romeo and Juliet 10 years ago, but the new adaptation takes a strong political spin by setting the narrative within the fascist regimes of 20th century Italy. Beginning in the 1930s and hopping through the century, each act of the performance feels fresh. Sets and video projections are constantly transforming, costumes gradually etch towards the modern, and emotion steadily builds before finally reaching the inevitable climax we know so well.

Despite the heavily layered narrative, the classic performance  maintains a romantic simplicity. Guided with the impressive grace of Juliet (played by Christine Rocas), each subsequent plot point seems ready and waiting. We find ourselves jumping between three decades and differing political climates yet none of this feels jarring,  a feat in itself. Complimented by the live orchestrations of Sergei Prokofiev and the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, story, dance  and time frames move seamlessly together.  The earlier decades of the 30s and 50s, scarred with fascist tensions, mimic the meeting and separation of the two lovers. Likewise, the decade of the 90s, with the dissolving of the Cold War, echoes the lovers’ lives lost.

With Romeo (played by Rory Hohenstein) representing the anti-fascist Montagues, and Juliet a hesitant daughter of the violent, dictatorial Capulets, the couple’s chemistry is only strengthened by their opposing roles.

As the production’s prima ballerina, Rocas is faced with the monumental task of freshening the performance with the aid of artistic director Ashley Wheater’s modern vision, while also keeping with the classical elements that make William Shakespeare’s play such a masterpiece. In a re-imagined balcony scene, Rocas floats down from a levitating box, fluidly soaring around her fellow dancers, their steps breaking like waves in a tide around her, Rocas’ performance showcases an organic interpretation of method and movement. Though  the Joffrey dancers rehearse for hours and hours with the flawless nature of their steps as is testament to it, none of their movements feel artificial or cold. Rather, it’s as if the audience has been allowed to glimpse a series of intimate exchanges.

Relocating to Chicago from the Philippines in 2005, Rocas took up gymnastics and ballet as a child, dancing for the Ballet Manila in her home country. However, making the move, even to perform with a company as distinguished as the Joffrey, was not easy for Rocas. ”It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life when I decided to take the (Joffrey) contract,” said Rocas in an interview after the performance.

“I knew I was doing well in Manila,” she said. ”All my family was there, and I had a stable position in the company. I was loved by the staff, I loved my fellow dancers, and I was taken care of. A contract with the Joffrey Ballet was a very scary idea but at the same time, it involved a lot of the unknown and that was exciting to me, too. Of course, I knew that I had to take it for many reasons. There was the opportunity to work in America, experience different reps, and to continue learning and growing as a person. I’ve enjoyed my experience at the Joffrey so much and heave learned so much from my fellow dancers. I don’t regret that decision at all.”

Rocas has garnered widespread success with the Joffrey, performing leads roles in both Cinderella and Giselle, and dancing in many other productions. However, this year’s version of Romeo and Juliet has allowed Rocas to approach the craft of dance in a way she’s never previously experienced, “I enjoyed the classical version (of Romeo and Juliet), don’t get me wrong. But this one has a special place in my heart,” said Rocas. “I enjoy this fresh take on the story and the modern approach to it. There are a lot of places that I can just be a normal person without being the perfect dancer that I’m working towards in my everyday work. It’s refreshing to be natural in my own skin, to be content and satisfied and apply myself as a person. (This take) has a very genuine, human approach.”

“I’ve always liked when telling a story or any kind of connection between people, there’s a conversation,” said Rocas. “With Rory, my Romeo, he has this way of conversing with me on stage (through dance). Of course the steps are rehearsed, but every other time there’s always something new and exciting in the conversation we share with each other. It always feels ‘in the moment’ which transports me into that place where I can really dig deep into the emotion.”

“When I go on stage and we do a run-through, on our first encounter there’s always something different. It’s how we look in each other’s eyes, which is slightly different every time,” said Rocas of dancing with Hohenstein. “The development of the feelings inside of me goes and builds from those little interactions. All those physicalities energize the character. It’s a very natural progression, getting to that place. It’s all a collaborative engagement as to how I get to that point. It’s almost as if (the audience) gets to see my life as it unfolds over those two hours.”

In this political season, “there’s a lot of divide,” said Rocas. “It’s always going to be relatable. It’s creative to show this story, as it’s timeless. These situations that are happening – the divide, cruelty, hatred and anger between people, are constant. It’s sad to think about how there’s always going to be those instances of divide. The story (of Romeo and Juliet) is timeless, but the divide is also timeless.”

The ballet performances ended in late October. Christiopher Wheeldon’s Nutcracker opens Dec. 10.

Photo at top: Christine Rocas and Rory Hohenstein in Romeo and Juliet (Cheryl Mann).