Blackbird Dance Theatre has mounted seven productions and taught many dozens of classes since its inception in 2013. This weekend it launches its eighth and most ambitious production yet — a contemporary dance performance of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
Blackbird Artistic Director Jenny Fitzpatrick is accustomed to creating original, collaborative productions straight out of the imagination, but she's been toying with visiting Shakespeare for awhile.
"I'd done so many original pieces over the last couple years," says Fitzpatrick, "I wanted the challenge of doing something that had already been written and then just putting on my take on it."
Romeo and Juliet is her favorite Shakespeare play, Fitzpatrick says, because it is very accessible to mainstream audiences, who are by and large familiar with the work.
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"It's true to the story," Fitzpatrick says of her version of the classic tragedy.
Of course, because the company is working in the medium of contemporary dance and not purely theater, many of the show's iconic scenes, such as the one from the balcony, are rendered without words.
"With dance, it's thematic," says Fitzpatrick. "For that was the biggest priority, pulling out the themes I found to be the most interesting and the hardest to portray in terms of movement."
Diving into the themes is where the creative process began, with Fitzpatrick choreographing about half of the work and other company dancers collaborating on the other half.
"Loyalty, honor, violence, haste — those words were really important to me when we started and where dance is concerned, they are all really fun to explore," says Fitzpatrick. "We started there and we started picking out moments as a company."
The diversity of themes in the show, which is loosely set in a "timeless" Verona with gothic stylization, lends itself to a large variety of dance techniques, including hip hop and aerial silks.
Last year, the company trained with aerial silks expert Jessica Johnson, who joined the company this year. Fitzpatrick says audiences can look forward to some stunning numbers featuring aerial work, including pieces choreographed on new aerial silk apparati.
The show may be dance-based, but plenty of Shakespeare's language remains, thanks to the specially created roles of the nurse, Lady Capulet and Friar Lawrence, played by theater veterans Matthew Johnson, Dara Tiller and Shayne Brakefield, respectively, with Wes Nelson playing the nurse in Saturday night's performance.
Their spoken roles serve to narratively connect the show's many pieces, but words inevitably play a second fiddle in the production to dance.
"When we found movement that could replace the words, we always went with the movement," says Fitzpatrick. "The entire balcony scene became movement. We were going to use those famous words but then we created something that was more beautiful without the words."
The performance features more than 16 dancers in 15 originally choreographed pieces. And with two full acts and an intermission, the show lasts almost twice as long as previous Blackbird productions.
"It's been quite a journey," Fitzpatrick says. She hopes that audiences will be able to deeply tap into their emotions and experience the well-known story in a new way.
"Dance inspires a really, really deep emotion," says Fitzpatrick. "A lot of people can connect to Romeo and Juliet because they know the story so well, but sometimes the dialogue gets lost on people, so I feel like going at it from a dance perspective provides a different way to communicate. Dance is another language, maybe one we can understand better."