Rediscovering R&J

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Brian Sanders’ JUNK present Romeo and Juliet’

4 minute read
Aerial work was an especially good fit for ‘Romeo and Juliet’: Julia Higdon and Teddy Fatscher with the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Photo by Pete Checchia.)
Aerial work was an especially good fit for ‘Romeo and Juliet’: Julia Higdon and Teddy Fatscher with the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Photo by Pete Checchia.)

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Romeo and Juliet offered a rare treat on several counts. As conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin pointed out before the performance, most orchestras get to play only the famous second suite of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet—but not so in an April performance with Brian Sanders’ JUNK.

The audience heard the full score of the work commissioned by the Kirov Ballet in 1934. Even better, the orchestra had partnered with an inventive Philly dance company to present a fresh take on the familiar tale. Nézet-Séguin explained that the orchestra and dancers would take turns telling the story, incorporating music, dance, and supertitles. This proved a winning combination, thanks to stellar playing by the orchestra, the powerful performances of the dancers, and the evocative and irreverent choreography of Sanders.

Interpretive dance?

I took my seat, admiring the view of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ behind the musicians on stage, and wondered where the dancers would perform. Then I saw the scaffolding behind them supporting a high platform. The platform was unoccupied as sweeping strings began to play, but a narrow screen near the organ’s pipes oriented us with some text.

A spotlight shone on a man in a blue shirt in the audience behind the orchestra, who gestured along with the text. The man was Brian Sanders, and both the text and his movement captured his irreverent approach to dance. JUNK would perform Romeo and Juliet as “interpretive dance,” the text stated, as Sanders waved his hands—a send-up of this style of modern dance, which attempts to translate emotion, theme, or story into movement.

Yet there was nothing silly about Sanders’s interpretation of the tragic romance. Like Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, the dance contained laugh-out-loud scenes that lighten the drama. But drama was the focus, and JUNK’s gracefully athletic dancers capably matched the beauty of the timeless tale, Prokofiev’s opus, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s interpretation of it.

Music and movement

As the supertitles introduced the characters and explained that dancers would remove their shirts to signal when they drew their swords, I wasn’t sure at first where to look: the orchestra, the dancers, the screen? However, as the performance continued, I found that the partners had devised a way to collaboratively and effectively tell the story of the two young lovers.

The performance’s focus alternated between the music and the movement in a way that quickly began to make sense. During “Dance of the Knights”—perhaps the best-known part of Prokofiev’s ballet—three topless male dancers mounted silver trapezes that looked like inverted swords. Standing on the hilts of the “swords,” they circled in the air above the orchestra. Next, the middle trapeze was inverted so that it looked like a cross. A female dancer in a black dress looped her arms over the sides and spun into the air. This image of crucifixion provided a fitting foreshadowing of Juliet’s doom.

Shirts off, swords drawn: JUNK’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Photo by Pete Checchia.)
Shirts off, swords drawn: JUNK’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Photo by Pete Checchia.)

Focus shifted to the music in the lively “Gavotte” section, which portrays the departure of guests from the ball where Romeo and Juliet meet. I held my breath when the organist played, purple and orange lights shining on the massive pipes looming above him. Sanders’s take on the ballet’s “Love Dance” was similarly breathtaking, when a prone Romeo (Teddy Fatscher) watched Juliet (Julia Higdon) spin suspended above him.

Other highlights of the first two acts included a comical divertissement for a male dancer in a tutu, who balanced on a railing, swung out over the orchestra on an aerial strap, and then sailed back into the seats behind as viewers ducked and laughed. JUNK united with the orchestra for a strong finish, with the musicians shining during the fatal confrontations between Tybalt, Mercutio, and Romeo while a trio of dancers performed an impressive fight scene combining elements of ballet, wrestling, capoeira, and theater.

Leaps of faith

After intermission, Fatscher and Higdon danced the farewell scene. Sanders’s choreography closely paralleled lines of Shakespeare’s play, so that I heard Juliet urging Romeo to stay a little longer —“It was the nightingale, and not the lark, / That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear”—as Higdon pulled Fatscher back to bed. When they placed their palms together, I thought of Juliet’s earlier line: “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” This image also recalled Romeo and Juliet dancing the moresca at the ball in Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1968 film adaptation.

JUNK’s incorporation of aerial work especially suited Romeo and Juliet, as it captured both love taking flight and the give-and-take of romantic partnership. Higdon and Fatscher portrayed lovers’ leaps of faith as they whirled in the air. After Romeo’s exile, the theme of trust emerged again as Higdon scaled aerial silks whose ends were not fixed but held by other dancers. Whether she ascended or descended, right side up or upside down, Higdon’s movement remained controlled and beautiful to look at, concealing the strength and mastery it required.

It was a triumph of a tragedy, as the partnership between the Philadelphia Orchestra and Brian Sanders’s JUNK gave the audience a chance to discover Romeo and Juliet in an entirely new way.

What, When, Where

Romeo and Juliet. Choreography by Brian Sanders. The Philadelphia Orchestra and Brian Sanders’ JUNK. April 4-6, 2019, at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or

The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Wheelchair-accessible seats or upholstered, loose chairs are available for purchase online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999/(215) 893-1999 TTY, or by emailing [email protected].

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