dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Rosie Kay brings Romeo and Juliet to Birmingham streets
Gang culture in Birmingham forms the backdrop to a new dance adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet created by choreographer Rosie Kay. The show, which premieres at Birmingham Hippodrome on September 8, is aiming to be a contemporary tale of romance and tragedy.
The production brings together a cast of dancers from different disciplines in a new show aiming to reflect the diversity of Birmingham.
Rosie Kay's Romeo and Juliet
Dancer Mayowa Ogunnaike, who plays Juliet, was keen to ensure audience members could see the characters as people they might know. She says: "My Juliet is really strong-minded. With her and Romeo there's more of equality in terms of power dynamics. She's a dreamer and adventurous, an optimist but she also has this bit of an edge about her. There's a naivety about her because she's young but she's also seen things which keep her grounded. She has a lot of hopes, desires and goals she's committed to. I hope the audience connect to the characters and can relate to them. It's a representation of a gang culture in Birmingham but it's also a love story and a tragedy and people will really feel the emotion coming from us."
Romeo and Juliet has been a new experience for Mayowa. "The cast all come from different backgrounds in dance, mine is more contemporary, and we all have very different ways of moving but it's been really inspiring. So, for example, there's a really long duet with Romeo and Juliet where marrying our styles really works. We move differently but we still move as one."
Subhash Viman Gorania, who plays Romeo, was also attracted by the idea of a different kind of Romeo and Juliet. "We grow up with Romeo and Juliet - there have been billions of adaptations of the story and so many Bollywood movies are based on it but they're always through the same lens," he says. "Rosie really wanted to do something different. She wanted to bring it from the view of young people in Birmingham today and, especially with Birmingham being so multicultural and with gang violence, it's a perfect setting for this story."
And he says the cast were encouraged to bring their own stories into the characters. "In rehearsals, we were given the freedom to explore our own experiences and bring them to the characters and I think that has helped shift both Romeo and Juliet. As it's a modern-day telling, it's us, who we are, on stage. Rosie has managed to pick a team of nine dancers who are so completely different and the diversity is shown in the choreography so I really think it brings the diversity of Birmingham to the stage. There will be characters in there who audience members know, have met or have experienced and will connect with."
Classic brought into the present day
Never one to shy away from controversial subjects, Birmingham-based choreographer and dancer Rosie Kay's past works have included explorations of the physical and psychological effects of war, media brainwashing and women's sexuality and it was important that this Romeo and Juliet also tackle difficult issues head-on.
She says: "I want dance to blow people's minds, for them to fall in love with dance and trust it's an amazing theatrical experience with a relevance to the here and now. I wanted to tackle one of the big classics in dance and came to Romeo and Juliet as it's both the play and the ballet I love the most."
Rosie undertook months of research for the show which included discussions with children at Nelson Mandela School in Sparkbrook about the themes in the play. In an attempt to try and understand gang culture and its impact on young people, Rosie went on the beat in Birmingham with West Midlands Police, talking to families whose children had been involved in drugs and had suffered violence on the streets.
Keen to ensure the final production reflected the diversity of Birmingham, she also aimed to create a show which blended dance styles so researched Asian dance disciplines with choreographers including Sonia Sabri and Aakash Odedra.
After creating the storyline she invited all of the cast to help create their roles. "I wanted the dancers to recognise themselves in the role and, in the audition process, we had long chats about their thoughts for the story and the characters," Rosie says. "Right from the very beginning, I was asking them to fill out these characters with their own life experience."
And she explains: "The dancers were very much co-choreographers, they really made it with me. They had such a range of dance skills from South Asian, street, contemporary, hip hop – I'm not an expert in these but I know what I want and how to get the best out of people. This show is about young people, different ethnicities, gang violence, things that are very modern and city-based and I didn't want any of this to come from the wrong perspective so it's been essential to have the collaborative approach. This piece has all the themes you can trace throughout my work like love, sex, violence, group dynamics, bullying and pressure but it also has so much input from the research and the dancers."
Romeo and Juliet is 75 minutes long and set to a soundtrack by Birmingham-based composer Annie Mahtani which blends her electroacoustic music with Berlioz's dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette. And after delays to the production because of COVID-19, Rosie is looking forward to sharing it with audiences. "When we finally open the show at the Hippodrome we will be so relieved to have got there," she says. "It has moved dates so many times and it's felt like 'will this show ever actually happen?' To be there and have an audience will be seventh heaven."
Rosie Kay Dance Company perform Romeo and Juliet on Wednesday September 8, for more information and tickets see www.birminghamhippodrome.com