Joffrey Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet Illustrates Freud’s ‘Narcissism of Small Differences’

What is not fully understood, will be acted out...

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The Joffrey Ballet’s magnificent dancers namely Romeo (Dylan Gutierrez) and Juliet (Jeraldine Mendoza) are propelled by Sergei Prokofiev’s lushly dramatic 1935 score and the not your average tutus, the strikingly modern costumes of Tatyana Van Walsum. Other noted dancer was comical Mercutio (Derrick Agnoletti).

Much more than the archetypal tragic story of forbidden attractions, this re-imagined tale takes place amid the tumult of 20th century Italian politics and sets William Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers against a backdrop of politics and war. The ballet begins in Mussolini-era 1930’s Italy and spans three decades of political strife, illustrating that generations of families can be affected by unreflective decisions of their forefathers. The unlearned lessons, the peace and healing unrealized, is especially relevant to modern audiences.

Why is Shakespeare’s nearly 600 years old play about two star crossed lovers from feuding families in Verona, Italy, still in sell out productions today? Simply put, the story at the heart of it is instructive with its universal and timeless themes. To help understand the deeper meaning of the plot lines is to apply Sigmund Freud’s theory of the ‘narcissism of small differences’ which describes the phenomenon that, “it is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.”

What? Yes, the ‘narcissism of small differences’ offers an explanation as to why two leading clans, both held in high regard by society at large are sworn enemies. The freewheeling fun loving bourgeoisie Montagues and the traditional staid old school Capulets with similar ethnic, linguistic, though differing cultural values are engaged in a three generation (or longer) feud. This kind of deep hatred leads to the death of two promising sweethearts who, much like many are caught in ethno-nationalist conflict from groups who by most appearances exhibit very few significant distinctions.

It is as if the two families were looking at themselves in the mirror unable to accept what they see.  The elders mow over the young lovers instead of managing the insecurities and discomforts they perceive.  By externalizing displeasure rather than owning their perceptions and making adjustments in themselves, they deride ‘the Other’ for falling short.  When that’s not enough to quell the storm inside, the ‘Other’ is terrorized for the un-contained dispossessed taboo urges. Defenses played out like this are the root of much scapegoating, prejudice and discrimination.

Were the two families able to work together who knows what heights could have been achieved? Herein lies the eternal heartbreak of lost opportunities. What a tragic loss.  Should two lovers possessing the gumption take a risk and forge their own course meet such an untimely ruinous end?  A good marriage and the next ‘mixed’ generation could have begun the necessary healing to settle a long standing dispute and stabilize a community.

How lucky we were to have had Joffrey Ballet of Chicago under the auspices of Ashley Wheater, Artistic Director, with Dance at The Music Center Orchestra, recently wrap up a run at the Music Center with a stunning take on this perennial classic. 

I surrendered to Krzysztof Pastor’s critically-acclaimed retelling of Shakespeare’s iconic tale for modern times. Blurring the lines of dance and violence, this is impossible love at its most defiant.  It reminds us that what we detest in others is something we might just have a hard time coming to terms with in ourselves.

There is one more dance engagement in the 2017/2018 season. American Ballet Theatre will perform La Bayadère as the final engagement for Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at The Music Center in July. This too is a love story, along the lines of a fairy tale set in the Royal Courts of India, that I can not wait to see. I will also be on the look out for the 2018/19 season to be announced in mid April.

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