Most of the ballets based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet have been set to Sergei Prokofiev’s splendid music— first heard in 1940 when Russia’s Kirov Ballet presented Leonid Lavrovsky’s version of the tale. Mark Morris’s Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare, which opened Bard’s six-week SummerScape, is also the premiere of Prokofiev’s original 1935 score, which was recently discovered in a Russian archive by musicologist Simon Morrison. Between 1935 and 1940, Prokofiev’s transcendent happy ending was abolished. Deletions, additions, and a revised orchestration brought the music into its now-familiar form.
Prokofiev, mapping out the play scene by scene, substituted powerful, soaring emotion and psychological astuteness for Shakespeare’s complex poetry. Motifs recall past events and presage ones to come. A tender strain evokes Romeo’s moments with Juliet, as he attempts to prevent the fatal duel between his friend Mercutio and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. The assertive polonaise that accompanies the guests’ arrival at the Capulets’ ball recurs when Lord and Lady Capulet enter Juliet’s bedroom to announce that she’s to marry Paris. A choreographer ignores at his peril the hard drumbeats meant to accompany Tybalt’s last swagger. Prince Escalus gestures to the leading Capulets and Montagues that their feud is tearing the city apart (screaming dissonances), then asks for peace (veils of sweet melody)—and if he doesn’t get it, heads will roll (more powerful dissonance).
But within the established framework, Morris tweaks the scenario ingeniously. For one thing, he hasn’t made a ballet; he’s a modern-dance choreographer. And even augmented by 10 additional cast members, including four ex-MMDG dancers as the parents, the onstage personnel never number more than 28. Perhaps that’s one reason that his Renaissance Verona, however hidebound and rigid in some matters (such as arranged marriage), is democratic in others. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes for the upper-crust aren’t very grand, and the nobles dance hand in hand with barefoot girls in the town square. Even Escalus (Joe Bowie), as proudly sensual as a big cat, joins a festive tarantella when he’s not leading the townspeople in stiff parades.
Within Allen Moyer’s design of blond-wood panels, Morris creates a Brueghelesque tumult that keeps your eyes busy. During the Act II festival, encounters—gossipy, flirtatious, hostile—spring up in every corner. Only when disaster looms is this lusty, quarrelsome society truly polarized, but a vendetta may be born in the flick of a thumbnail against teeth. Tybalt’s festering rage erupts after he sees a woman he likes (Jenn Weddel) dancing boisterously with Mercutio (Amber Darragh), Benvolio (Dallas McMurray), and a Montague sympathizer (Elisa Clark).
Morris casts his dancers interestingly, and they respond with gusto. Chest and chin outthrust, Julie Worden gives Tybalt an air of soul-twisted bravado. Darragh’s Mercutio is a wonderfully raunchy tease (Morris has given her a terrific solo defined by Prokofiev’s scampery musical-character sketch). Instead of a padded character dancer as Juliet’s nurse, we get small, trim Lauren Grant—bossy with her servant Peter (excellent characterization by Samuel Black), sternly loving with Juliet (a quick spit-wash does away with a spot on her charge’s cheek), and the bustling heart of the Capulet household. Bradon McDonald’s Paris isn’t the usual entitled wimp, but an arrogant suitor who might well become a wife-beater.
Two pairs of dancers alternate as the lovers. Maile Okamura, willowy and light on her feet, looks like a lovely changeling in this coarse society. Rita Donahue is earthier, yet has a beautiful way of breathing into suspended moments and melting out of them. Both excel at conveying Juliet’s innocence, playful spirit, and heartbreaking resolve. As Okamura’s Romeo, Noah Vinson is ardent and expressive, while David Leventhal, with Donahue, makes his character initially more downcast, more hesitant. You can see love empowering him moment by moment.
This isn’t a work in which Morris is saying to us: “Watch this clever step.” Everything serves plot, character, and music. The choreography for the festival has the robustness of folk dance, or a couple dance like the volta, in which women are swung into the air. To the famous music that the composer labeled “ponderous,” the Capulet guests stalk four abreast in shifting formations. Romeo and Juliet’s way of moving—simple, modest, and exalted—sets them apart from the self- interested people around them. They seem almost to be learning to dance as they are learning to love—although their reticence doesn’t prevent them from enjoying a sensual morning after, their happy nakedness only slightly hidden by a red bedsheet.
After tragedy is averted by Friar Laurence (John Heginbotham) and the two flee, and the contending clans are miraculously reconciled, the wooden panels rotate to reveal a starry world in which Romeo and Juliet dance together—maybe forever. As the handsome faux-tile curtain descends for the last time, they are opposite each other, orbiting an unseen point that must be the power of love.