It would be difficult to count the number of different artistic adaptations of the story of Romeo and Juliet that have appeared since William Shakespeare’s play first trod the boards in the late 16th century.
But its apparently permanent appeal likely stems from its central idea of an all-consuming love, and, well, that’s something we can all relate to.
“It’s a tragic story, but ultimately it’s a love story,” said dancer and choreographer Jerry Opdenaker. “Who wouldn’t want to have someone give up their own life because their love was taken from them? That’s the ultimate sacrifice of love. It’s such a beautiful story. You cannot beat that story.”
Opdenaker takes on the familiar tale of the star-cross’d lovers this weekend when his O Dance company debuts RnJ, the Ballet Florida veteran’s first-ever full-length ballet. It will be seen on a double bill at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens with another premiere: The Office, a jazz-dance look at women in the American workplace of the late 1950s, created by Maria Konrad and her Reach Dance Company.
The O Dance RnJ will feature a cast of 14 dancers in a minimalist staging accompanied by a 36-minute film by Zachary Lambe and Evan DeCarmine as a backdrop. Juliet will be danced by Brooke Naylor, Romeo by Jeremy Coachman, and Count Paris by Alex Anderson. All three are graduates of the Dreyfoos School; Naylor is a member of the Fordham/Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater BFA program, and Coachman and Anderson are dance majors at Juilliard.
Much of the score will draw on various versions of Nino Rota’s music for Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1968 film of the story, Opdenaker said, with other songs including Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of Nature Boy, Radiohead’s Exit Music ( for a Film), plus music by Regina Spektor and Donovan.
The 50-minute ballet will follow the arc of Shakespeare’s play, with some differences, notably when Juliet goes to Friar Laurence for help, she discovers Paris there, who also has come to see the friar.
“There are tidbits like that, meetings that I think are really important,” Opdenaker said, including the final scene of the play, in which the friar explains his actions, and the families are reprimanded. “There are some key scenes that people don’t see a lot, so I try to bring those back.”
He has also designed movements for the show’s characters that are based on specific body parts as referenced by Shakespeare. For instance, Juliet’s dancing is influenced by hands because Romeo first wishes to be a hand on her cheek when he sees her. Lady Capulet’s movements come from her shoulders, which as a social climber she is always looking over, and Paris is “all about his elbow,” Opdenaker said.
The characters themselves are the primary draw for Opdenaker’s choreographic vision.
“After so many years of doing character roles in ballet companies, it’s just been a love of mine. And these characters are so complex and have so many different levels; they have this arcing journey that they go through,” he said. “Every character in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has this arcing journey. They begin somewhere, and something along the way transitions them into a different person by the end. Romeo and Juliet start at opposite ends of the spectrum and they only meet at the top of that arc. That’s really intriguing to me.”
Opdenaker said RnJ will appeal to younger audiences “just getting their first taste of Shakespeare,” and for older audiences, it represents “a new take on a classic story.”
“It’s really entertaining and a really innovative way of presenting this love story. You’re going to end up falling in love with these characters all over again. Maybe in a different way, but definitely you’re going to fall in love with them,” he said.
Opdenaker and Konrad have presented co-productions before, and work out of the same studio space in Palm Beach Gardens. The Office, set in 1958, is Konrad’s hommage to professional women in the years before they were fully integrated into the workforce, and is also an exploration of Mad Men cultural territory.
The 16 dancers — three men, a child and 12 women — dance to a score of 22 songs by period artists such as Dinah Washington (Teach Me Tonight, Cry Me a River), Peggy Lee (Fever) and the king of lounge music, the Mexican bandleader and composer Juan Garcia Esquivel. There are songs by Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, and even Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter, which accompanies a tap number.
The choreography of The Office is by Konrad, Danielle Armstrong and Amy Carroll, and explores several of the archetypal office figures, from the boss (danced by Opdenaker) to the office manager, young female hires and the mail boy. Konrad said there are six overlapping story lines in the show, and while it is intended to be a “very pleasant and very funny” evening, the dance doesn’t shy away from tough issues.
“Some of it’s kind of pushing the envelope. We have a piece called ‘The Glass Ceiling,’ where the women are just in their slips at the end of the day, and we have these glass ceilings flying in, and as the number goes on, the ceilings get lower and lower and lower,” she said.
And to Mychael Danna’s score for the 2011 baseball-stats film Moneyball, Armstrong has created a piece called Primal Scream.
“I know a lot of women that I talk to that are mothers, and work full-time, and are wives and friends, at the end of the day sometimes they just want to rip their clothes off and scream,” she said.
Some of these grittier pieces came out of discussions the women of Reach had about the work and what it should represent, and Konrad had some clear directions she wanted to go.
“I wanted to explore the fact that women have some qualities in business that are positively different than men, and negatively different than men,” she said. “If a woman has to behave like a man to get to the top, is she really bringing her sensibility to what’s needed?”
Konrad said she found inspiration in the many-sided lives of her dancers, one of whom (Susan Fulks) is assistant dean of the Graduate College at Florida Atlantic University, while another runs her own company when she isn’t dancing.
“I feel like it’s a cathartic thing for all of us. And it’s fun, and it’s silly, and it’s very sexy,” she said. “We’re doing Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ very stark, completely in unison, with black fishnets, black slips and character shoes. It’s showing that vulnerable side of women, that silly side in the office, and the sexy side.”
But Konrad’s ultimate aim is to entertain as wide an audience as possible and, not incidentally, help enliven South Florida’s dance scene.
“I want people that have never seen dance, and of all ages, to be able to come to the show, to have a 90-year-old person and a 15-year-old person see the show, and say, ‘This is cool, this is accessible,’” she said. “I want them to be able to say, ‘OK, that’s contemporary dance. I can get into it.’ That’s my goal. I just want to share it with them.”
O Dance and Reach Dance Company will present RnJ and The Office: Vignettes on Women in the Workplace at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Eissey Campus Theatre, Palm Beach State College, Palm Beach Gardens. Tickets: $20, $15 students. Call 561-207-5900 (Eissey), 561-339-6360 (Reach) or visit www.reachdancecompany.com or www.odance.org.
There will be a special preview performance at 2 p.m. Friday of excerpts from the two shows as well as Pendulum, a work by Jennifer Archibald, performed by the Dreyfoos School’s Dance Department. Tickets for this performance at the Eissey Campus Theatre are $5.