World leaders, especially our own, should have heeded Bill Gates’ warning. In a 2015 TED Talk he told the audience “if anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes.”
He was right, of course, and had it not been for that virus I might never have spent five days watching a thoroughly modern adaptation of Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo et Juliette and ruminating over its contemporary application.
Like other arts organizations, Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) was prevented from having live performances and a normal season. Instead, it’s struggling to survive with a virtual one. M and I renewed our subscription, but our expectations were low. We renewed to support the company through these tough times.
Romeo et Juliette, was the first of PNB’s 2021 digital stage programs. It’s definitely not your mother’s Romeo and Juliet (or Shakespeare’s). This adaptation is the creation of Jean-Christophe Maillot, choreographer and director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, one of the most innovative dance companies on the planet. Maillot’s version tells the story from Friar Laurence’s conflicted point of view as the lovers’ facilitator. All of this on a minimalist stage.
The first time I saw Prokofiev’s ballet it was with Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography starring Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn. He was 29. She was 48, but emerging stage right from the wings of the San Francisco Opera House she was the teenaged Juliet. Unforgettable.
The story, one of Shakespeare’s best known and most accessible, has inspired many other artists in different genres. Tchaikovsky composed a symphonic version (excerpts often used for ballet). Prokofiev wrote the 2-hour score for ballet. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins created the musical theater version as West Side Story, and according to Goodreads more than 103 novels have been written based it. This fall Steven Spielberg plans to release an updated film version of West Side Story with Tony Kushner as screenwriter and two young unknown actors in the title roles.
Romeo and Juliet in all its iterations is a high art. It’s a touching romance, but its core is tragedy. It’s about a turf war in Verona or in later versions on New York’s West Side. Warring factions, provocateurs, racial strife, murder, family conflict, secrets and denials, potent drugs, duplicity, with an ineffectual priest acting as facilitator.
Good art is always thought provoking, especially Shakespeare’s, and as I watched the drama unfold with the heartbreaking beauty of Noemie Pantastico and James Moore’s dancing I thought about the recent assault on our nation’s Capitol and the catastrophic division it revealed.
It may seem a stretch but, like the play/ballet, there were provocateurs inciting the riot (Trump, Giuliani, Congressman Mo Brooks) and warring factions (Proud Boys and Capitol Police), death and destruction. But they were not foreign adversaries. They were our countrymen.
Like the play there was murder, duplicity, and racial strife in abundance. The basis of both stories is an unwillingness to deal with the truth. Failure to respect and tolerate differences led to death and destruction in both. Until recently, we liked to think of America as a civilized society with safeguards in place to keep it so.
But, just as a malevolent Mercutio taunted and provoked Tybalt and drew Romeo into a conflict he didn’t want to be part of, so Trump taunted and inflamed his followers and created a frenzied murderous mob then stepped aside and let them do his dirty work.
Mercutio dies because Tybalt’s pride is challenged. Tybalt dies to avenge Mercutio’s death. Romeo dies because the message about Juliet’s slumber is delayed. Juliet dies of grief. Officer Sicknick died because the police reinforcements/National Guard are withheld. Ashli Babbitt is shot and killed because she mistakenly believes Trump’s lie about a stolen election.
We mourn the deaths of the young “star-crossed” lovers. They’ve tapped into our humanity and touched our emotional core. Their deaths may even have brought the warring families together in their grief. This is a romantic tragedy not a real one.
The insurrection on January 6th was a real tragedy. On that day, the day Congress was set to certify the presidential election, an aggrieved would-be despot having exhausted all legal remedies to overturn that election and desperate to hang on to power invited thousands of his followers to the Ellipse, near the White House for a Save America Rally. Refusing to concede the election and having fed them lies and disinformation for months, he and his posse incited the raucous crowd to storm the Capitol then stepped aside and let them do his dirty work.
They overwhelmed the police line, trashed and ransacked the American Capitol. Six people died. 140 police officers were injured, Senators and Representatives barely escaped, cowering in closets and undisclosed locations in the capitol complex. The election certification was disrupted for more than 8 hours. It was a violent attempted coup d’etat. It was unsuccessful but revealed the fragility of our democracy.
The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet ends with these lines:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings,
The sun for sorrow will not show its head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things,
Some shall be pardoned and some punished.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Maybe not, but the insurrection on January 6, 2021 may be “of more woe.”