Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Ballet Debut Review: Mark Morris's 'Romeo & Juliet, Motifs of Shakespeare'

As oft danced as Serge Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet has been over the last 70 years, the great Soviet composer's original score and all of the original accompanying dances have never been performed. Yes, never, and therein lies a tale.

That changed over Independence Day weekend with the world premiere of Romeo & Juliet: On Motifs of Shakespeare at Bard SummerScape danced by the Mark Morris Dance Group with the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein.

The production is based on Prokofiev's original score, which was composed in 1935, and restores the original story line that he conceived with dramatist Sergei Radlov, 20 minutes of never-performed music, as well as six dance numbers choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky of the Kirov Ballet but also never performed.

Prokofiev wrote in Autobiography that he had been focusing more on the lyrical aspects of his music and believed that a score based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet would allow him to more fully explore this element. He composed motifs to express certain emotions, to signify the appearance of particular characters on stage, and to depict certain events. These motifs recur throughout the score and are a unifying characteristic.

Prokofiev and Radlov reimagined the Shakespeare tragedy as the transcendence of love over oppression and ditched the traditional ending in which Juliet awakens just before Romeo poisons himself for one in which they live happily ever after.

"Prokoviev was a Christian Scientist and didn't believe in death. So in his version, Romeo and Juliet don't die. They go on to a new life, released from the false reality of their material being," explains Botstein, who also is president of Bard College and one of the most erudite and funny men in classical music as we have learned through attending several seasons of the ASO's marvelous Classics Declassified series.

Stalin decided that the masses should be exposed to the classics long denied them as Prokofiev was writing Romeo & Juliet. But the red czar's schizophrenic cultural police soon began a crackdown on the arts and were outraged at the ballet's nonconformist ending, which they declared was undemocratic. There also were complaints by the Kirov's dancers that some of the choreography was too difficult and too discordant. The premiere production was canceled and the composer was sent back to the drawing board. What emerged at the 1940 premiere and has been performed ever since was different in key respects.

Simon Morrison, a Princeton University musicologist, leading Prokofiev scholar and Bard scholar in residence, discovered the original score in the composer's Moscow archives and reconstructed it.

"When the audience hears this piece, they'll hear a time warping score," Morrison says of the original music, which most notably lacks the heavy Stalinist strings and percussion. "They'll hear what [Prokofiev] once was, as opposed to what he became."

This includes the original libretto for the concluding dance, which Morrison describes thusly:

"Juliet awakens in Romeo's arms and they do what I imagine would have been a sumptuous pas de deux, and right at the end they walk off into some third space where they're never been before; it's just labeled as a grove, a sort of garden space of their own."

* * * * *

On Motifs of Shakespeare is being called the hottest dance ticket of the summer and it's easy to see why.

For starters, it premiered at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, a dazzling complex with impeccable acoustics designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry as a centerpiece of the campus of Bard College, a small liberal arts school nestled in the scenic Hudson River Valley about 90 miles north of New York City.

For another, the SummerScape series theme is "Prokofiev and His World," and Morris, Botstein and Morrison are a formidable team of collaborators.

We caught the Sunday afternoon performance, and while On Motifs of Shakespeare was as auspicious as its billing, the "new" material does not begin to emerge until the end of the second of four acts. Some balletomanes are likely to grump that the production doesn't seem all that different except for the ending.

That criticism is unfair, because the production in its entirety -- the dancers, music and story line -- is deeply moving in Morris's modern context. Mind you that the American Symphony Orchestra is not a top-tier outfit, but what they may lack in world class they make up for in ferveur. Under Botstein's sensitive direction, the ASO was more than up to the challenge of conveying the gorgeous musicality of the production.

David Leventhal and Rita Donovan are the primary Romeo and Juliet. We saw Noah Vinson and Maile Okamura (top photo) in those roles and they danced them beautifully. Vinson played the party crasher to the hilt, while Okamura was dazzling.

The 17 regular members of the Mark Morris Dance Group are joined by seven extra dancers and four former company members as the Montague and Capulet parents. Morris has said that he cast Amber Darragh as Mercutio and Julie Worden as Tybalt because there are more men in the story than women. Both shined in those nastily satirical roles, while Lauren Grant excelled as Juliet's nurse.

Morris eschewed the bombast of the traditional Romeo & Juliet ballet, as well as the balcony and crypt scenes and class distinctions that Shakespeare and Prokoviev so relentlessly pushed, and the connection between the primary characters deepens and melds beautifully with the musical motifs.

In a review that Papa Joe himself would applaud, a leading dance critic does not share my enthusiasm because he is not enamored of Prokofiev's interpretation of Shakespeare to begin with, thus Morris has no chance of succeeding. I myself believe On Motifs of Shakespeare is a tour de force and after a forthcoming world tour it will enter the canon of great modern dance.

Sergei Prokofiev died in 1953, ironically on the same day as Stalin, having never heard a performance of his original score. Would the composer have approved of Mark Morris's interpretation with its homage to the motifs he labored so hard to bring to the stage only to have to settle for a politically-correct sanitization of the triumphal Fourth Act's conclusion?

I believe that he would.

* * * * *

Motifs of Shakespeare will play Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California (September 25-28); the Barbican Centre in London (November 5-8); the Krannet Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana, Illinois (March 13-14); the Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk, Virginia (May 8-10), and the Rose Theater at New York's Lincoln Center (May 14-17). An additional stop is planned at Chicago's Harris Theatre for Music and Dance on to-be-announced dates in September 2009.

Photographs by Gene Schiavone/MMDG. This review included
from ArtsEdge, The Boston Globe, The New York Times,
Daily Gazette, and Summerscape program notes.


Anonymous said...

My thoughts exactly. Mr. Morris was not trying to re-do a Kenneth MacMillan ballet (which I also loved). He was telling the story in his own truly unique way. I absolutely adored every minute of the MMDG performance! Bravo!

Anonymous said...

This may seem strange, but I am going to see Mark Morris' "Romeo & Juliet, Motifs of Shakespeare" this upcoming Sunday, but I am sending you this note before I go.

I so enjoyed your personal blog/review of the ballet, even before seeing it! I just liked the tone of your piece. I deeply love both Prokofiev and Mark Morris, so it's hard to imagine that there won't be much to love in this upcoming performance. I saw a few negative reviews of the ballet online (e.g. our local San Francisco Chronicle critic), so I was especially glad to read yours.

And, as a side note, I also loved the photo of you and your "friend" (S.O.?) on your web site. I'm of a certain age, and you two just look so happy and vibrant. Reminding the world that we who have been around for a while can have just as much fun as 20-somethings. So there! Keep disseminating said photo. :-)