There are few tragedies more haunting than the death of innocents, as Shakespeare, Euripides and the daily news remind us.
One of the best known of these tragedies gains new power through a moving and boldly original treatment. “Juliet and Romeo” is Swedish choreographer Mats Ek’s version of the ill-fated lovers’ tale, told in a way that honors its Renaissance source while tying it directly to today’s world. The Royal Swedish Ballet gave this 2013 work its North American premiere on Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Ek’s ballet has little in common with those heavily draped and chandeliered productions of the Shakespeare story that most balletgoers know. Ek’s characters look pretty much like us, in their slacks, skirts and ponytails. There are no pointe shoes. The teenage boys behave like teenage boys, goofing around and punching each other.
It is always night here. The set has a stripped-down look, with a smoky, shadowy stage and forbidding walls that bring to mind cities under siege. This could be modern-day Syria or Iraq, or a U.S. town in crisis. The Capulets patrol their turf on Segways, with the rigid bearing that we instantly recognize as policelike.
The music is not the familiar Prokofiev, but Tchaikovsky. In a previous conversation, Ek told me he found that Tchaikovsky evoked young love beautifully, though there wasn’t much in the way of true violence and aggression in his music. Ek needed the violence, too, but love was most important. He chose his excerpts well, and they were splendidly performed by the Opera House Orchestra.
Ek took his flip-flopped title from an early short story, “Giulietta e Romeo,” which was probably one of Shakespeare’s sources. Having given his heroine top billing, he also gave her moxie and strength. Again and again it is Juliet who takes the most decisive action and who stands up to her parents. In this austere world, Mariko Kida’s Juliet is the lone bright spot. We first see her wearing yellow, hopping about like a puppy and teasing her Nurse.
Ana Laguna, the extraordinarily expressive dancer who is Ek’s longtime muse (and wife), gave the role of the Nurse a grounded moral force. Throughout the ballet she is a witness to the key moments, often peering from the shadows. In her 60s, with her long gray hair in a thick braid, she is also a vigorous and deeply musical member of the cast, matching the bounding Mercutio and Benvolio, for instance, step for step. Her presence highlighted one of the many glories of this company and this production: Not everyone looks alike. There are dancers of varying ages, sizes (Jerome Marchand’s Mercutio towers over Jokuto Kodam’s Benvolio) and backgrounds, with some more trained in ballet, others in modern dance.
It takes time to adjust our ears when we’re at a Shakespeare play, and in the same way, it may take a short while to feel engaged by Ek’s unique physical expression: the long, stretched-out lunges, the blown-back torsos and moments when everyone rolls on the floor.
It is Ek’s genius, however, that his weighted, earthy, unusual moves arouse vivid emotions. When Mercutio, Benvolio and Anthony Lomuljo’s sweet Romeo are messing around, you ache for them. Especially the big, tattooed Mercutio, who roughly pushes the other two away, yet also yearns for their company. An unnameable change is in the air — we see how the boys sense it, in their intentionally awkward, artless responses to the music, in the way they link arms and take comfort in being together.
The giddy beauty of young love is Ek’s high achievement here, but so is the ugliness of hatred, which Ek depicts with equal inventiveness and immediacy.
It’s easy, therefore, to link this ballet with what’s going on in today’s world. Age-old frictions and factions continue to tear loved ones apart: The same day that “Juliet and Romeo” opened at the Kennedy Center, this newspaper’s front page told the story of an Israeli woman fatally knifed in her kitchen by a teenage Palestinian boy. Both her family and his spoke poignantly of their grief, confusion and loneliness in the aftermath.
That Ek’s ballet seems to anticipate, respond to and add more layers to such heartbreaking violence speaks to his masterful command. How acutely he communicates something real in the make-believe world of the stage.
In fact, his art draws us in not by making us believe, but by making us feel. By expressing the yearning, resistance, helplessness — and the hopefulness — of love. Hope is Ek’s coda, as it was Shakespeare’s, and as it must be ours, too.
The Royal Swedish Ballet performs “Juliet and Romeo,” by Mats Ek, in the Kennedy Center Opera House through Saturday. Tickets: $29-$129. 202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org.