Angelin Preljocaj's modern dance "Romeo and Juliet" begins conventionally with a tape of Prokofiev's familiar, anguished Introduction played in the dark. But suddenly the sound of a prowling helicopter overwhelms the music, and we enter a Shakespearean nerona like no other: a bleak, post-apocalypse police state in which thugs in black (the Capulets) brutalize the homeless (the Montagues) in a walled set by Enki Bilal mthat might be an old fortress or factory or concentration camp.
The bombed-out gaps in those walls parallel the missing sections of the story and score, with the deliberately discontinuous result suggesting an incompletely remembered myth being retold a long, long way in the future, perhaps around Montague campfires. In this version, there are no parents, no reconciliation of families. The Nurse has become a pair of grotesque female totems stiffly parodying classical ballet, and Friar Laurence a sci-fi cult leader wearing a bizarre Medusa headdress. Yes, there's a balcony--it's where Romeo slits a guard's throat en route to visit Juliet. And the sense of danger, of imminent violence, permeates even the love scenes.
Preljocaj originally choreographed it in 1990 for the Lyon Opera Ballet, but the edition introduced to local audiences Thursday at UCLA's Royce Hall dates from five years later and is being performed by his Ballet Preljocaj of Aix-en-Provence. Available on home video, the Lyon performance makes dancing on pointe one more a symptom of Capulet decadence, but even without toe shoes the social contrasts of the 90-minute work play with fierce intensity.
To begin with, the Capulets are tightly stuffed or strapped into their clothes while the Montagues sprawl out of theirs. Claudia De Smet makes Juliet casually willful and her first meeting with the initially loutish Romeo of Sylvain Groud looks more like teenage fetishism than "star cross'd" romance. She wants deep kissing, but he wants her arms thrown high around his neck. They try manipulating each other into compliance but it doesn't work.
When Romeo returns later on, however, what starts as a menacing stalking dance develops into a passionate duet full of shared movement impulses and an escalating feeling of release. At the end, Groud swings De Smet around him, over and over, faster and faster, her legs flying out, her arms locked with his. And suddenly, the classic Shakespearean sense of this night and this love as a refuge from grim Verona realities blooms as richly as in any traditional Renaissance-style staging.
But there's more: a bedroom duet in which four other couples materialize to make a statement beyond the specifics of any one relationship: a statement about the power of love, the freedom to love, even in a societal cage. And there's also an incredible tomb scene--for once as nakedly emotional as Prokofiev's score--in which Romeo furiously tries to shake life into Juliet and she later, in turn, repeatedly hurls herself against him, each of them rebelling against the reality of death at an astonishing level of physical daring.
Preljocaj needs performances of this heat to fuse his splintered semaphoric angularities and repetitive structures into a genuinely expressive style. When he retreats to pure formal dancing, as in the nine-woman ensemble just before the tomb scene, a by-the-numbers vacancy sets in. Moreover, the storytelling sometimes becomes too doggedly literal and he must punch it up with special effects: Friar Laurence's magic shroud, for example, or the wooden bats that appear out of nowhere for the Capulets to use against Mercutio.
Still, this remains a valiant and often thrilling attempt to align past and present: to situate Prokofiev's score in the Stalinist world it was composed for and, above all, to give Shakespeare's story and characters the immediacy they lack in all the prettified ballet versions we see season after season. Preljocaj takes "Romeo and Juliet" very personally and that seems to be what audiences increasingly demand at the end of this century: someone to make a classic new again.
In this task, he is aided by a superb company, with Loic Noisette especially prominent as a Tybalt consumed with hate and Herve Chaussard equally impressive as a Mercutio defiantly sprightly to the very end. Along with Goran Vejvoda's aptly oppressive sound score, the production uses excerpts from "Romeo and Juliet" recordings conducted by Lorin Maazel and Seiji Ozawa.
* Ballet Preljocaj, "Romeo and Juliet," tonight at 8, Royce Hall, UCLA campus, Westwood. $11-$35. (310) 825-2101. Mixed bill: Oct. 6 and 7, 8 p.m., Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. $24-$27. (949) 854-4646.