In preparation for our presentation of The Joffrey Ballet's "Romeo & Juliet," we asked writer Ada Calhoun, whose work has been featured in The New Yorker and in The New York Times' Modern Love column, to reflect on what "Romeo and Juliet" means to her.
by Ada Calhoun
Whenever I’m lucky enough to attend a ballet, I find myself remembering how hard I found dancing. As a little girl growing up in New York in the 1980s, I took classes at the Joffrey Ballet at their upstairs studio on Sixth Avenue and Tenth Street. The windows open, trucks barreling up the avenue below, I learned the five positions and did barre exercises in my powder blue leotard until it got difficult.
It got difficult fast.
“The teacher is tough on you because you’re good,” said my mother, who was a dancer in her childhood. “That’s how ballet works.”
I went with this theory until after some months I began to notice that the teachers were hard on everyone.
And once it dawned on me that you didn’t get to be a prima ballerina while watching as many hours a day of Scooby-Doo and The Facts of Life as I required, I quit ballet and returned to my regularly scheduled programs, never again to leap before a wall-length mirror or bobby-pin my hair into a tight bun.
As a child, sitting on the couch in front of cartoons was easy. Doing a grand jeté that would satisfy my Joffrey teacher was tough, maybe impossible.
I revere people who manage to stick with ballet past second grade, let alone those who go on to become among the greatest dancers in the world, like the Joffrey performers appearing in this timely interpretation of Romeo & Juliet. The strength and grace of professional dancers—especially when viewed alongside the rather more modest physical gifts of most professional writers—testify to the benefits of perseverance and sacrifice, to the value of enduring the hard. (My awe and wonder at these dancers’ majesty is dampened only by a vague sadness at the thought of all the excellent television shows they must have missed.)
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of western culture’s more eloquent and profound meditations on hard versus easy. Falling in love, especially when you are young and beautiful, is easy. Getting the world to support you in that love is tough, maybe impossible. Romeo and Juliet reminds us how precious young love can be in its fragile, easy state, before it’s dragged into the real world.
Those of us who know about the hard parts of love feel for the play’s innocent hero and heroine. Watching the young lovers is like holding someone else’s new baby and instinctively wanting to keep it safe. We root for the survival of their love—and, by extension, for our faith in love’s ability to defeat all obstacles. We hope that those who would nurse contempt may agree to a truce. We wish that what Romeo and Juliet seek to do—what we all attempt whenever we fall in love with someone and try to keep him or her close forever—wouldn’t inevitably prove hard, sooner or later. We long to believe that the world will be made whole.
When we’re young, love is hard because we have so little to compare it to, destroying all perspective, and because we are changing so quickly, which leaves the ground shifting underfoot. When we’re old, love is hard because we have so much to compare it to, and because we may want feel threatened by the prospect of too much change. In middle age, love is hard because there is so much competing for our attention and our energy. Throughout history, it’s the same: we have the best-laid plans for our pure, perfect love and then the world happens.
Romeo and Juliet, particularly as interpreted in dance, calls us to recognize the value in daring to stay in love for eternity, or performing such intricate, exquisite choreography. The Joffrey’s stunning ballet version, created by choreographer Krzystof Pastor, reminds us what love, and bodies, look like in a perfect world.
Seeing the young lovers fall in love at first sight, we are called to remember the times we ourselves felt love. We’re reminded that it’s a genuine tragedy when we let the easy part of love—desire, affection, curiosity—be destroyed by the parts that are hard. We are reminded, too, to celebrate hopeful children who defy their bitter parents and talented dancers who don’t let TV distract them, and for Shakespeare, who wrote something eternal about the glory and the difficulty of love.
Ada Calhoun is author of the memoir Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, coming from W.W. Norton & Co. in May 2017.