Stunning New 'Romeo & Juliet' to Open at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival

William Bracewell and Francesca Hayward in 'Romeo & Juliet,' with choreography by Kenneth MacMillan and directed by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. (Copyright Footwork Films)

At a time when societies are increasingly fractured along tribal lines, there may be no more potent a reflection of the personal costs of these conflicts than Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Though the tale has been reinvented in countless ways, prepare to be torn to shreds by a new film version from Britain’s BalletBoyz.

Directors Michael Nunn and William Trevitt have swept Kenneth MacMillan’s dramatic ballet onto the streets of Budapest, and drafted a captivating cast from a young generation of stars at the Royal Ballet. Their staging injects new realism and intimacy into the classic work without sacrificing the grandeur and drama. They’ve driven the action along at a furious pace, trimming the darkly glorious Prokofiev score to a lean, mean, fighting 90 minutes, and unleashed the heavens on a pivotal fight scene—it’s sensual, adrenaline-pumping stuff.

Scene from Romeo & Juliet. Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan. Direction: Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. Copyright Footwork Films.

American audiences will get their first view of this Romeo & Juliet when it opens on Wednesday, Nov. 6, at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, close to the time of the U.K. premiere. I caught up with Trevitt over the phone as he and Nunn prepared to fly to San Francisco for the opening. Both men danced for many years with the Royal before helming their own gutsy all-male contemporary troupe, and have earned accolades for their innovative stage and film projects.

Of ballet on the big screen, Trevitt said, “Film opens up so much potential in an art form that can seem slightly frozen in time.” Restless cameras weave in and out of market square and ballroom crowds, pry into Juliet’s balcony and bedroom, and penetrate the gloom of the Capulet clan’s underground crypt. The dancers’ taut physiques may be sheathed in tights and pointe shoes, but their barely made-up faces register deep, often conflicting emotions with a refreshing naturalness.

Francesca Hayward as Juliet in Romeo & Juliet. Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan. Direction: Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. Copyright Footwork Films.

The cast reflects the increasing diversity of the Royal Ballet’s ranks—Francesca Hayward as Juliet, in particular, has made waves as one of the few black ballerinas to be named a Principal dancer in a major classical ballet company. Her chemistry with William Bracewell’s boyish, impetuous Romeo is undeniable—yet at their first encounter, when he and his pals gatecrash the Capulets’ ball, the overwhelming sense from the camerawork is one of claustrophobia, as society closes in on the pair.

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Even as individual characters are finely etched, the framing of the action throughout the film reinforces the idea of the powerlessness of the individual in a monstrous feudal system. Juliet is just an impressionable teenager, and Romeo no more of a hero than his cocky pals (the exuberant Marcelino Sambé and James Hay), and they don’t fully comprehend the game in which they are pawns. The whirlwind infatuation and its deadly consequences could have been the fate of any of their peers: it’s presented as a tragedy of society more than the tragic love story of these two young people with horrible parents. That the grownups themselves feel trapped is evident in searing portrayals of the grief-stricken Lady Capulet by Kristen McNally, the chilling Lord Capulet by Christopher Saunders, the fiery Tybalt by Matthew Ball, and the conflicted Friar Laurence by Bennet Gartside.

William Bracewell and Francesca Hayward in Romeo & Juliet. Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan. Direction: Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. Copyright Footwork Films.

Trevitt said, “We had some pushback from people early on saying, ‘You need to tell me which one is Romeo from the beginning, you need to show me a headshot so I can identify him.’ We said, ‘We don’t want to do it like that, we want to have this community where gradually one of the people is revealed because their storyline happens to be the one that you follow. But you don’t need to know which one that is until the storyline begins to reveal itself.’ So, it’s more about a bunch of three friends, and a family preparing for a marriage, and much less about the stars, the lead characters.”

He went on to reflect, “But part of that is because—although Michael and I did perform Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio in our day, all the leading male roles—we also spent a lot of time as townspeople. We know the stars can’t do it unless the community around them responds in the right way. We wanted to really respect the work of the corps de ballet dancers and for them to end up being as important a character as the leads were. Perhaps that’s why you saw what you described as something that could have happened to any of them: it’s just a tragic sequence of events that led to it being this particular tragedy on this particular day.”

Teenage passions and swordfights to the death aren’t the only things to look forward to at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival. In 10 years, the festival has seen an explosion in submissions, across an abundance of dance forms. This year 120+ entries from 25 countries offer a wide-ranging exploration of why people dance. And they celebrate the kinds of superheroes who don’t need stuntmen to pull off extraordinary feats of artistry and daredevilry on screen.

That would include the Memphis jookers in Lil’ Buck: Real Swan, a documentary that traces the journey of Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley from the streets of Memphis to ballet studios and international concert stages, and then back to Memphis to inspire the next generation of jookers.

Ekaterina Kondaurova and Lil' Buck. Photo: Dan Krauss. Image courtesy of Versatile Films.

Lil’ Buck’s fleet-footed collaborations with cellist Yo-Yo Ma feel as serendipitous as the extravaganza that united French choreographer Maurice Béjart with the music of Queen and Mozart, and the designs of Gianni Versace. Though Béjart was moved to create his ballet by the deaths from AIDS of his lover and muse Jorge Donn, and Freddie Mercury, the work itself is more joyous than mournful. The making of the ballet in 1997 is recounted in the new documentary Queen + Béjart: Ballet For Life.

Scottish Ballet is a smallish company with an outsize digital footprint and an appetite for trying new things. This year, Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple envisioned a fine dining experience gone hilariously wrong in Tremble. And for a piece called Frontiers, San Francisco Ballet’s Myles Thatcher flew in to engineer an assortment of intimate grapplings by pairs of dancers of mixed- and same-sex, in the shelter of Glasgow’s colossal concrete underpasses.

Tamara Rojo for English National Ballet / Akram Khan’s Giselle. Photo: Jason Bell.

Akram Khan’s Giselle is an austere and gripping reimagining of the classic 19th century ballet about class betrayal—this version set in a community of garment factory workers. The Kathak-trained contemporary choreographer has given the classically trained dancers of English National Ballet a hypnotic movement idiom, and the brigade of undead women in Act II are every bit as eerie as in the traditional rendering.

Valtteri Raekallio in Fram. Choreography and direction: Thomas Freundlich and Valtteri Raekallio. Photo: Thomas Freundlich

Because easy things are rarely worth doing, dancers traveled literally to opposite ends of the earth to make Dancing on Icebergs, by New Zealand’s Corey Baker, and Fram, by Finland’s Thomas Freundlich and Valtteri Raekallio.

(In full disclosure, sticking closer to home is a pair of films from KQED’s Webby Award-winning series If Cities Could Dancein which local dance crews Turf Feinz thread their way through the streets of Oakland, and R.O.O.T.S. The Movement imprint Richmond locales with their distinctive high-octane movement style.)

It wouldn’t be San Francisco without an ultra-high tech angle. Two years ago, the festival started screening virtual reality (VR) dance films. Today, festival executive director Judy Flannery notes that VR is “still outside the reach of a ‘regular filmmaker’ both in terms of costs and truly understanding how best to utilize the unique advantages the technology can bring to a dance film." But from the handful of recent submissions, she notes that "what was purely experimental two years ago is now more thoughtful and deliberate."

So, for the first time, the festival has commissioned a VR dance film, pairing a research engineer with a choreographer to produce the work in a tight timeframe. Jodi Lomask and Bhautik Joshi's Into the Neural Forest was inspired by actual brain imagery, and whisks viewers into a model of the brain, populated by dancers who behave like neurons.

It's a brave new world.

 

The San Francisco Dance Film Festival runs from Nov. 2–10 at various venues around the city. Details here.

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