Take Shakespeare’s tragic love story, add music by the influential band Radiohead and some slick choreography, and what do you get? Radio and Juliet, choreographer Edward Clug’s 2006 ballet for the Romanian company Ballet Maribor. Performed on Friday and Saturday at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, the ballet drew dance and Radiohead fans alike, eager to see what would happen when Shakespeare is added to the mix.
Clug is both brave and foolish for marrying the two. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been choreographed so many times that to add another version to the books – one that the choreographer thinks will be unique – is ambitious. And Radiohead is so universally appreciated (or perhaps detested, but I fall into the former category) on its own that it’s difficult to imagine the band’s music paired with the world’s best-known love story. Can the work of two distinct, global, and expressive artists not only compliment one another but also enrich each other? The answer in this case is overwhelmingly no. Radio and Juliet felt gimmicky: people love the tale of star-crossed lovers, and they love Radiohead. So they’ll love the two together, or at least, fill up a theater, right?
There are a few distinguishing factors in this version. The story begins with Juliet awakening to find Romeo dead beside her, and evolves in a flashback. The cast of seven includes one woman and six men, all of whom seem to represent masculinity more so than any particular character in Shakespeare’s play. And Juliet’s poison – both comical and strange – is a lemon, whose juice drips down her neck and burns her tongue. Initially, the ballet barely resembles Romeo and Juliet, but there are some familiar moments staged from the story, such as the violent death of Mercutio to Radiohead’s Sit Down. Stand Up, and the meeting of Romeo and Juliet at the masquerade ball, in which the men wear hospital masks.
Although the intention was to tell the story from Juliet’s perspective, most of the ballet focuses on the men who, while wearing black pants and open jackets, assert themselves in disconnected, aggressive, and often mechanical strings of movement. Juliet, in a corset and ballet slippers, moves with delicacy, rarely appearing alone but rather in the company of men. There is little insight into Juliet’s experience, besides the fact that clashing families and warring men overshadowed her life and conflicted with her desires, which we already know from the play.
At its worst, the ballet relies too heavily on approximately ten Radiohead tracks for emotional expression and lets the characters rush through their angular, William Forsythe-influenced movement without any feeling at all. Shouldn’t such angst-ridden characters pause and reflect on their circumstances rather than depend on propulsive music – and often gut-wrenching lyrics – for expression? It was irritating to see the first pas de deux for Romeo and Juliet set to How to Disappear Completely, in which Thom Yorke sings, “In a little while, I’ll be gone, the moment’s already passed.” The music shouldn’t be telling the story, but rather deepening it.
Ending abruptly, it seemed like Clug either ran out of choreography or couldn’t find an appropriate Radiohead track for the conclusion. But the suddenness spoke volumes about the mismatched influences in Radio and Juliet. Together, Radiohead and Shakespeare were limiting, and the production suffered because of it. Pulling inspiration from many threads is, in theory, a good idea. But when tied all together without first determining how they align and augment one another, the outcome is flawed.