As choreographed by Cooper Rust, artistic director for Dance Centre Kenya (DCK), Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was much more than a tragic love story. Staged last weekend at Kenya National Theatre, it was an enchanting performance including electrifying moments when literally life and death weighed in the balance.
The most beautiful scenes in the ballet, set to music by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, were, of course, when the evolving relationship between the two young lovers was danced exquisitely by Joel Kioko and Annabel Shaw.
But as much tenderness was conveyed between these two ill-fated sweethearts, there was just as much tension surrounding their affair. For theirs was a forbidden love, the kind that was never meant to be, leave alone evolve so rapidly and passionately as theirs did.
That was due to the intense tribal rivalry between their families, the Capulets and Montagues. Despite their living in the same town, Verona, they shared a mutual aversion to one another, especially when it came to their youth meeting. And wedlock was utterly unthinkable, according to the elders.
But as is often the case among the young, their attitudes are more flexible than their parents. Nonetheless, there were plenty of young people in Verona who followed age-old traditions, which is why they fight in the ballet.
Dressed in elegant costumes and staged with beautiful backdrops, Romeo and Juliet was one of DCK’s most dramatic productions since it opened in 2015. Cooper deserves praise for also directing her cast, especially as she had just a week to rehearse her leads. Her Romeo, Joel Kioko was only able to leave his training at the English National Theatre School the Saturday before the premiere this past Saturday night.
Why she and her whole cast deserve extra credit for this marvelous performance is because they effectively communicated Shakespeare’s story while relying solely on the language of dance to ensure they conveyed all the Bard’s inspired ideas and heartfelt emotions. Cooper had one big advantage, which was having her leads being her former star students who subsequently gained admission to top ballet programmes in UK where they’ve excelled. And as one would expect, they performed like true professionals, debunking any stereotypic hint that just because the majority in the cast (including those two) are still teenagers (or younger), the ballet might be “amateurish”. That certainly was not the case.
But for all the beauty, sweetness and delicate sensuality that one saw as they performed, the scenes that were most electrifying were those when the most intense rivalry exploded in dramatic dance. It happened when the fencing duels got most ferocious, as when Romeo avenged the death of his dear friend Mercutio (Yigit Erhan) by stabbing his killer Tybalt (Baris Erhan) to death. Initially, Romeo refused to be drawn into the fight, but once his friend was killed in a duel by the rival Capulet, Romeo could hardly restrain himself. Unfortunately, the dead Capulet was Juliet’s cousin which only made their love look even more like an impossibility.
Juliet’s parents (played by Cooper Rust and Gerald Osmond) were devastated, especially Lady Capulet, who was beside herself with the agonising grief that only a mother can feel. But what made matters worse for Juliet was that her parents were even more adamant that she married Paris (Francis Waweru), who’s a relative of Prince Escalus (Jazz Moll), the most powerful man in Verona. This compelled her to do something drastic as we all know. She consulted the Friar Laurence (Mishael Okumu) who gave her a vial containing potion that made her body simulate death for several hours, after which she would recover.
Most of us know what happened next: Romeo arrived at her open grave when she was still under the potion’s influence. Believing her dead, he swallowed a real poison and died. When shortly thereafter, she woke and found both Paris and Romeo dead, in her anguish she grabbed the blade that Romeo used to kill his enemy and stabbed herself.
Their deaths have gone down in literary and cultural history; their story has been used to illustrate many truths. One is the risk of autocratic parenting which can easily elicit a radical reaction from youth who are inclined to rebel. Another is the risk of passionate (“puppy”) love triggering emotional responses that negate rational thought. And in the extreme, can even lead to suicide as we see in Romeo and Juliet.