The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Dancing into Romeo and Juliet

The Bolshoi Ballet will returning to Iowa City (through video, at least), this time with an adaption of William Shakespeare’s much-performed but rarely danced Romeo and Juliet.

The Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St., will host a film screening of the Bolshoi’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at 7 p.m. March 20. 

This is not the first time Romeo and Juliet has been taken from the stage. Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet has been depicted in film, TV, and (more or less) the Broadway musical West Side Story.

Professor Emeritus of English Miriam Gilbert said many modern audiences gained their first introduction to the play through movies. The most important of these, in Gilbert’s opinion, is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, based in part on his earlier Old Vic stage version starring Judi Dench.

“For most people, that was definitely a turning point, with treating [Romeo and Juliet] about young people. And it was just great,” Gilbert said. “And he went ahead and made a film, which is just gorgeous with beautiful music, and for many people, up until Baz Luhrmann’s film, was their introduction to the play. And a beautiful introduction.”

Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet placed the Elizabethan drama in ’90s Verona “Beach” — but maintained the Shakespearian language — and starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers.

“Baz Luhrmann does use Shakespeare’s lines in a modern dress,” Gilbert said. “He starts the prologue being delivered by a TV anchor. Instead of swords, they have guns, although one gun does have ‘Sword’ written on it … It was hugely popular; many people went to see it.”

Adam Hooks, a UI assistant professor of English who specializes in Shakespeare, said the famous balcony scene was not included in the original Romeo and Juliet script.

“In the late 17th century, Romeo and Juliet was transposed to a Roman setting and in some ways [is] completely crazy from our perspective, but it appears to be the first production that features what we’ve come to know as the balcony scene,” Hooks said.

Gilbert said she recommends modern directors try to portray Romeo and Juliet in a fresh light. A 2013 film adaptation, for example, was widely panned for copying Zeffirelli’s style, changing the dialogue, and contributing little to the literary conversation.

“If you go at it in a formulaic way, and you say, ‘Here’s one of the greatest love stories of all time,’ then you’re going to have a bad production,” Gilbert said. “But if you say, ‘What is this play saying to me right now?,’ you’re more likely to find something interesting. But you have to trust the play, trust the actors, I don’t think a formula works at all. And I think rethinking of the characters is always good.” 

George De La Peña, the head of the UI Dance Department, said that the movement Bolshoi Ballet uses in its Romeo and Juliet are poetic, despite the absence of dialogue.

“There is the dance of seduction,” De La Peña said. “There is the taut body language of attraction and desire. These are all recognizable body-language clues and cues that can be interpreted without language. After all, that’s what we used to do before we had language.” 

“Therefore, as beautiful as the Bard’s language and poetry is, the timeless story does not suffer for lack of it,” De La Peña said. “Further, the body language is heightened in the ballet to a level of glorious expression as it reaches beyond the limits of feeling, a fully embodied experience.”