SHAKESPEARE’S Romeo and Juliet has spurred so many critically-acclaimed versions over the years – such as Bernstein’s West Side Story, Prokofiev’s classical Ballet score or the Leonard di Caprio film Romeo + Juliet – that it takes a very special creative vision to find something different to say. Step up Rosie Kay and her dance company, whose new production premiered at Birmingham Hippodrome this week.
This production has had a long gestation from conception back in 2015 – with planned performances delayed due to a seemingly endless series of Covid lockdowns and it must have seemed at times to choreographer Kay and production partner Birmingham Hippodrome that it would never happen.
From the opening, it is clear that this is a mash-up of dance styles from Hip-hop, Urban, Indian, contemporary and even some ballet moves. The soundtrack is also a mix of styles, incorporating both classical (Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet ballet score) and ultra-contemporary with Composer Annie Mahtani’s original soundscape incorporating spoken word mixed with police radio reports. Herein lies the rub – such a heady and jam-packed mix of movement and music styles makes for an, at times, disjointed performance that struggles to find its flow.
The opening scene, which introduces the two rival gangs, is confusing with few visual clues to distinguish each gang – perhaps this is deliberate, to emphasise the similarities rather than the differences, but it made it hard to follow.
The party scene that comes next is similarly disjointed, until Romeo (Subhash Viman Gornia) spies Juliet (Mayowa Ogunnaike). From here on, the production finds its flow, with a beautifully handled pas-de-deux that serves to emphasise the difference in backgrounds between the ill-fated lovers – Gornia’s flowing, classical style contrasting perfectly with Ogunnaike’s more earthy, raw performance. This Juliet is a sassy, street-wise teenager, but Ogunnaike still manages to convey a sense of joyful innocence in her relationship with Romeo.
The news of the relationship spreads through the streets like wildfire and soon the gangs are back on the streets as rumours spread and escalate. Things got confusing here again, trying to follow who is who in each gang. A frenzied fight ensues and two of the gang members are killed. The body count reaches five by the end of the performance with of course both Romeo and Juliet ultimately taking their own lives, leaving just four gang members to mourn at a makeshift street shrine.
There is no mistaking the passion and talent of the dancers, but I felt that, rather than the huge Hippodrome stage, this production would suit a more intimate setting where you are close enough to see the sweat and feel the raw energy of the dancers. Having said that, there is much to commend the production, which can only improve with more outings out of the confines of a covid-restricted rehearsal room.