lovers: (l-r) Donahue and Rosen in Romeo & Juliet.
New Is Old Again
& Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare
Morris Dance Group, American Symphony Orchestra
Richard B. Fisher Performing Arts Center, Bard College, July
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 retitled) 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 otherworldly 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 underrehearsed.
Allen Moyer’s set is minimalist—literally. Against the wood-grained
ochre of the walls, he places pint-sized buildings to represent
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
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.