Romeo and Juliet is the one story by William Shakespeare that practically everybody knows or at least has heard of.
It’s the beautiful love story between two young people from warring families whose ill-fated love ends in tragedy. People might not know the names of the two families, the Capulets and Montagues. But the conflict creates a marvelous dramatic backdrop for their love affair to blossom in spite of the tensions arising all around them.
It’s a fantastic story, but what will make the Dance Centre Kenya’s production of Romeo and Juliet even more of a show-stopper and a ballet performance that nobody should miss, is the casting and choreography by Cooper Rust, DCK’s artistic director.
“I am thrilled to announce that Joel Kioko will be back to play the part of Romeo after being away for three years, studying dance at the English National Ballet School (ENBS) in London,” says Cooper who will also perform, not as a prima ballerina (as she was in the States), but playing the part of Lady Capulet opposite John Sibi Okumu who will play her spouse, Lord Capulet.
Joel first came to DCK when he was just 13 years old. He had been spotted by Annabel Shaw, a secondary school student at the International School of Kenya who had chosen, as a school project in philanthropy, to teach ballet at a low-income government school called Karen C Primary in Kibera.
Annabel was just 14 herself, but she had already been a star student of Cooper’s at DCK, so she felt qualified to share her largely unknown dance form, ballet, with low-income students.
But once Annabel saw Joel’s untutored athleticism, she called Cooper and invited her to come to the school and meet him. Cooper did just that and immediately found him a scholarship to study at DCK.
He was the Centre’s star student until he won a scholarship to study at ENBS, which was more than a dream come true for the lad. But it was a hope that Cooper had nurtured, having seen his immense potential for ballet.
There’s something that will make the four performances on February 15-16 at the Kenya National Theatre exceptional. It is that the same Annabel, who went off to study at the Northern Ballet School in Manchester around the same time as Joel went to London, will return to DCK in time to play Juliet.
This will be wonderful, says Cooper, since the two have remained good friends since they first met in Karen C. Joel’s homecoming will also be special to Cooper since he was the first of her students that she also tutored in basic academic skills as a means of ensuring he would pass all the tests required both to graduate from secondary school and to qualify for the London Ballet School.
“Now he will be coming home with a Level 5 Diploma from ENBS after which he will be auditioning for a place in [an international] ballet company,” Cooper adds.
Playing Lord and Lady Montague are Gerald Osmond and Edita Camm. Not only that, Jazz Moll, the director of the Youth Theatre Kenya will play the role of Prince Escalus.
Plus Joel and Annabel won’t be the only dancers who are coming from overseas to be part of the DCK production. Cooper has invited guest artists Yigit Erhan and his brother Baris to play the parts of Tybalt and Mercutio respectively.
Cooper had danced professionally with Yigit before coming to Kenya. And while abroad in December, she also danced with another former ballet partner, Bo Busby. “Bo and I literally grew up together in Columbus, [South Carolina], but then once we completed school, he went to join the Boston Ballet and I went to join the ballet in Las Vegas,” she says. What was remarkable was that after 17 years they went on stage together in The Nutcracker as if they hadn’t been apart for a single day.
It’s that kind of indelible bond that Cooper believes Joel and Annabel will also convey as they play their parts since they’d danced together for a solid three years before they both went overseas.
Joel’s journey has been such a remarkable one that his story has been told and retold by everyone from BBC and CNN to Al Jazeera and Flett Film which recently made a documentary on ‘Joel’s Journey’ from Kibera to London and the Royal Ballet. One can find ‘Joel’s Journey’ on YouTube.