Juliet, O Juliet

Try e-mailing Hamlet.

Or IM Othello. Speed-dial Macbeth. Text Titus Andronicus. Call Brutus on his Blackberry.

Watch Antony and Cleo get busy on webcam (Shakes-porn).

So many high-tech options to chat up the Bard’s dead historical figures, fictional and otherwise. Why merely snail-mail Juliet? The deceased damsel is dying — let’s rephrase that as “eager” — to hear from you.

But she’ll settle for an Elvis Costello album and an evening of dance.

“That was the point of departure for Elvis Costello and the Brodsky String Quartet when they started working on this in 1991,” says Kelly Roth, artistic director/principal choreographer of the College of Southern Nevada’s Concert Dance Company and Dance Ensemble. The 1993 concept album and cross-genre collaboration between the rock musician and the classical artists birthed “The Juliet Letters,” based on actual missives mailed to the dead Capulet of Shakespeare’s imagination.

“There was a newspaper article about a professor in Verona, Italy, who collected these letters that went to the dead-letter pile at the post office, and he answered them. What Elvis Costello and the quartet did was start thinking about letters in general that people would write. It makes for a really interesting idea.”

Assuming one good reinterpretation deserves another, the professor’s experiences with specific letters were transmuted by Costello and the quartet into a musical tapestry that took artistic liberties, and is itself expanded upon by Roth into a dance fantasia with theatrical touches Friday and Saturday at the Cheyenne Avenue campus in North Las Vegas. Aided by the Sol String Quartet backing vocalist Paul Villaluz as he sings the album’s lyrics, the choreographer spins out a variety of vignettes, setting them to fluid movement via his performers.

“(Costello and the quartet) thought of things like people writing a suicide note or getting served legal papers and Dear John letters,” says Roth, who plays the postman delivering the communiques. “I had to take it further in how we could turn it into a dance so I thought about relationships and loneliness and miscommunication, people wandering around trying to make connections in the world, having ulterior motives. There’s no (narrative) through-line and it does get convoluted in a Shakespearean way.”

Minidramas and quickie comedies, from evergreen themes of human interaction to contemporary situations born of recent news events, are filtered through dance. Among the snapshots of life: A couple negotiates a divorce as predatory lawyers loom; an atheist who doesn’t believe in the afterlife confronts a ghost; a woman fends off family members eyeing her money; a depiction of female soldiers in Iraq (climaxing with a dancer in a body bag); and references to Barack Obama, John McCain, Sarah Palin and the “hostile, media elite.”

“One favorite is scientists inventing machines that resurrect famous people like Lee Harvey Oswald and Liberace,” Villaluz says. “It’s like a perverted version of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’ with all the name-dropping. And the music under it sounds like Looney Tunes.”

Strange? Certainly, in the way creativity often begets offbeat avenues of exploration, especially stemming from this oddball premise of people pouring out their romantic frustrations as a form of emotional catharsis to a make-believe lass who takes a tragic dirt nap. As in Costello’s musical conception and now Roth’s dance translation, Juliet shifts from a central role in the newspaper article as the recipient of the correspondence to a more abstract presence that inspires other ideas, as in a jazz tune that leaps from a straightforward melody to improvisational riffs.

“There are a lot of things that apply to life, not necessarily relating to Juliet,” says dancer Susie Sewell. “Each piece has its own little story, and each one is relatable.”

But Juliet does make a more tangible contribution in a seance scenario as Romeo reaches out to her. “This is definitely outside the box,” says dancer Brittney Livingston. “We’re interpreting stories, the movements we do may mean something and they may not, it’s for the audience to decide.”

At its core is people reaching out to people, conveyed through the limber and languid movements of dance. “I’ve loved ‘The Juliet Letters’ since it came out in 1993,” Villaluz says. “It was really unique, thinking about letters people could fashion to communicate pure human emotion.”

More people might even be moved to contact Juliet. But we can’t find her e-mail address.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at or 702-383-0256.


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