The set looks like a hotel room, with an unmade bed in one corner, clothes strewn across the floor, and bottles and candles on the tables. The young couple in the drama have obviously been staying here for several days, or hundreds of years, since before Shakespeare adapted their story into his play Romeo and Juliet.
The man is visible, naked and showering, through the steamy glass wall of the bathroom. The woman is lying on the bed, but she will soon stand up and they will see each other, again and for the first time.
These are the opening moments, seen at a dress rehearsal, of a new dance-drama remix of Romeo and Juliet at Montreal's Usine C. There's a definite beginning and end to this one-hour production, but choreographer Catherine Gaudet and stage director Jérémie Niel have shuffled scenes in such a way that the familiar story of impossible love seems to form an endless loop of desire, denial and grief.
"It's a perpetual drama," Gaudet said during a lunch break. Perpetual drama could be a synonym for myth, which, as Marshall McLuhan said, gives us a glimpse of eternity.
Gaudet and Niel began with two classic, primary texts – Shakespeare's play and Prokofiev's ballet score – but found they needed something else to ground the piece in the here and now. They found it in the personal narratives of dancer-actors Clara Furey and Francis Ducharme, who recite dialogue from the play but also deliver their own reflections on their history together. The line between their story and Shakespeare's is fluid, Niel said. Of the world outside their shifting relationship, we see nothing.
"These two characters are sequestered in a very small space, with no opening into the world, even in their dialogue," Niel said. "We use only the dialogue they have with each other, with no reference to the outside. You never hear their families' names. But the exterior puts pressure on them just the same; it obliges them to be there and play these roles."
Prokofiev's music, remixed and processed by Éric Forget, is part of that unseen exterior world. At moments, it swells up and dominates the scene, animating the dancers almost as if they were puppets at its command.
"It's a little as if Prokofiev invades the room and obliges them to play this tragedy, to engage with the classic side of their story," Gaudet said. "As the piece goes on, there is more fusion between the stories. Francis becomes more Romeo, and Clara becomes more Juliet."
Gaudet doesn't usually match movement to music so closely, "but there's always a moment in my pieces when it does synchronize completely, and I get a lot of pleasure from doing that, and seeing it. I also wanted to reclaim this ballet score for contemporary dance."
The movement vocabulary in Romeo and Juliet looks very different from what Gaudet used in her piece Au sein des plus raides vertus, seen a month ago in the same space. That dance abounded in primitive repetitive routines that resembled grooming rituals or the movements of insects. It seemed to develop more from the physicality of the dancers than from any outside narrative.
"Usually my movement is very gestural," she said, "but it's more abstract in this piece, and also perhaps more naturalistic, because I am obliged to follow the music. This is not a story I sculpted with the dancers, as I usually do."
From Shakespeare, Niel and Gaudet have taken mostly the big scenes: the first kiss, the balcony scene, the farewell and the deaths, though not necessarily in that order. Prokofiev's score is sometimes unrecognizable in the Forget reworking, though it comes through in the composer's own arrangement in music from the Capulets' ball, and from the duel leading to the death of Tybalt. Those are the badass, pride-and-violence parts of the score, and they provoke Gaudet's most extended attempts to yoke her movements to the rhythms of the music. At the dress rehearsal, it was plain that she had also matched the emotional risks taken by the characters and players with equally risky choreography.
For their abbreviated adaptation, Gaudet and Niel opted for one of the more florid forms of the Shakespearean title: The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. That may be a way of signalling that even in this one-hour form, nothing essential has been left out.
La très excellente et lamentable tragédie de Roméo et Juliette continues Saturday and Sunday at Montreal's Usine C. The piece will also be seen in Paris in April, during seven performances at La Théâtre National de Chaillot.