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Friday, April 25, 2014

Rethinking Romeo

From the Marley Dept.: Prokofiev’s original version of his “Romeo and Juliet” ballet left the lovers intact. Commissioned for the Bolshoi Theatre by artistic director Vladimir Mutnykh, the project went awry after the 1936 Pravda denunciation of Shostakovich and subsequent arrest of Mutnykh. By the time the “tragic ending” version premiered in Russia in 1940, much else had been changed, usually over the composer’s protests. The original version turned up recently, and Mark Morris premiered a dance to go with it at the Bard Summerscape Festival in 2008. Here’s my review.


IS IT A BAD IDEA to keep Romeo and Juliet alive at the end? If so, it joins the many other bad ideas Mark Morris has turned into virtues during his career – and never better than in his choreography of the ballet “Romeo & Juliet,” created for a recently discovered first-draft score by Prokofiev. Following a scenario he created with Sergey Radlov, Prokofiev reimagined (and re-titled) the work, crafting a fourth-act finish in which love triumphs over familial adversity.

It’s not giving away anything to note that the new (old) version finishes with an otherwordly pas de deux for the reunited lovers, as close to a traditional dance as Morris gets. It’s classical by way of modern by way of Morris, which means that attitude becomes Attitude, with a heightened sense of characterization – a maturity, a timelessness – told through the bodies and movement.

From the start, there’s characterization in this ballet as complex as in the original. Look beyond the leads and you see a busy background of continual interaction, with hands and arms especially important.

As richly detailed as this was, with a convincing build to the feuding, I was less convinced whenever the Prince of Verona (Joe Bowie) entered to quell the fights. Bowie has a terrific presence, but these scenes require a contrasting consonance that didn’t come across. I’m suspecting that it will ease into place over time; some aspects of this production looked a little under-rehearsed.

Allen Moyer’s set is minimalist – literally. Against the wood-grained ochre of the walls he places pint-sized buildings to represent the village.

Romeo and Juliet are double-cast; David Leventhal and Rita Donahue danced the roles when I saw it, and both radiated impressive vulnerability even in the vigor of their dancing. They shared a wonderful, childlike, West Side Story-ish moment catching sight of each other during the ball when they meet and, as noted above, they visibly matured in the course of the piece.

Morris cast Mercutio and Tybalt with women from his company, Amber Darragh and Julie Worden, respectively, which not only worked effectively but also heightened a sense of gender conflict that only helps the piece. The role of Mercutio is a gift to any actor, and dancer Darragh was similarly arresting, with a death scene, you’ll excuse me, to die for – melodramatic and very moving.

Juliet’s Nurse is another classic role, and dancer Lauren Grant added youthful vivacity to the flighty character, especially effective in ensemble scenes where her character needed to be assertive.

The music, familiar at first, reveals different textures in its lighter orchestration, and elements have been moved or rearranged, particularly at the end of the third act, when the supposedly dead Juliet is presented with gifts by Paris and his entourage. In a Tchaikovsky-like procession of different dances, some totally new musical sequences include a surprise visit from what would become the core of the last movement of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

As a ballet, “Romeo and Juliet” became a quick classic, in productions ranging from the classic Kenneth MacMillan version to Robert Joffrey’s multiple-Juliet experiment. Although Morris has a bad-boy reputation reinforced by such rethinkings as “The Hard Nut,” setting Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” on its ear, his “Romeo & Juliet” has the earmarks of a modern classic, and I look forward to re-seeing it as it develops and matures.

Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare
Mark Morris Dance Group, Mark Morris, dir. and choreographer
American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, cond.
Fisher Performing Arts Center, Bard College, July 5

Metroland Magazine, 10 July 2008

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