To call the "Romeo and Juliet" of the Ballet Preljocaj a mere story dance is to dub the Paris landmark L'Arc de Triomphe a bunch of bricks. While the essential architecture of the traditional Prokofiev-scored ballet is evident, this remarkable French company explodes onstage, recreating this traditional story as a tale for the next millennium.
From the brutal physicality of the barefoot choreography, which slams lovers against each other in desperate frustration, to the bleakly futuristic concentration camp-like set, these are dancers from the future come back to tell us that the old ballet world order is gone. This is what the future looks like - and while the imagery is grim, the company couldn't be more exciting as a reinvention of the basics of ballet.
No more are men relegated to steadfastly hoisting women around the stage, with an occasional solo tour de force. This large, male corps de ballet grabs the stage at the outset with a fierce expressiveness that reveals creator Angelin Preljocaj's understanding of the tenets of modern dance, not the traditions of ballet.
While ballet has spent centuries trying to lift away from the earth, these athlete-dancers, men and women, pound away at the stage in a way that comes entirely from the center of their being, as the earliest modern-dance practitioners from Martha Graham to Isadora Duncan advocated. The lovers engage with this intensity, absolutely stripped of any self-conscious attention to line and pretty poses. And there is nary a toe shoe, hardly any shoes at all, in sight.
This production of "Romeo and Juliet" was originally commissioned in 1990 for the Lyon Opera Ballet, back before French-Albanian choreographer Preljocaj had found a permanent home. Now, his eponymous company is based in southern France's Aix-en-Provence. Fortunately, for the international dance scene, he has remounted the choreography with his own dancers and taken his show on the road.
At the recent North American premire at UCLA's Royce Hall, audience members responded with predictable enthusiasm to the eclectic and groundbreaking work. "The encounter between the two lovers was the most searing," said theater director Robert Prior, adding that the raw physicality of the performance was almost unsettling.
Hollywood choreographer Victor Robles remarked on how rich the movement vocabulary was in both ballet and modern-dance traditions. He said with a laugh how satisfying it was to see the male dancers used so forcefully and not relegated to their usual role of "piano movers." He added, "This company is right at the forefront of redefining dance for the next century."
* Tour dates include: Oct. 10 at State University of New York at Purchase and Oct. 22-25 at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org