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Mark Morris— "Romeo & Juliet: On Motifs of Shakespeare"

by Lori Ortiz
May 17, 2009
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023
212.875.5456
Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall
Incredibly, Mark Morris's 2008 "Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare" is the first notable modern dance re-imagining of the tale and Serge Prokofiev score. Like all of Morris's best choreography, it is illuminating in unspeakable ways. It is no surprise that Morris should have undertaken this, or any story ballet material.

He has made masterful abstract ballets. Musicality is his middle name. But narrative is another of his fortes. For example, "Sylvia," the well loved "Dido and Aeneas" and his recent opera success "L'Isola Disabitata." For "Romeo & Juliet" he went to the sources, Shakespeare and Prokofiev, but certainly he considered the MacMillan ballet, and even Peter Martins' version.

Instead of having Lord Capulet slap Juliet for her willfulness, Morris has him angrily push her to the floor. We don't blink or bristle. Perhaps it is because we are with him here and generally fascinated. Or, because Morris takes social patterns, uncomfortable predicaments, and makes dance patterns of them. For example, in Act III, Juliet's Bedroom, the characters run a relay, as the nervous-making news of the marriage arrangement unfolds. Morris matches Shakespeare's farcical wit, in the face of a crisis.

In this casting, Rita Donahue does Juliet proud. The articulation of her flexed foot carries the poignancy of first love. In fact, Romeo, an exquisite David Leventhal, expresses love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name with a pointed foot. He swings it behind, from a bent knee. In lyrical love duets, their theme is swirling, heady, spiraling turns. They literally sweep each other off their slippered feet. Leventhal's multiple, travelling turns are briefly breathtaking. He is delicate but powerful and very young looking. The pair recall Martins's realistic portrayal of youth, but Donahue has been with the company for six years and Leventhal, twelve. He could almost be called a veteran.

On the other end of the spectrum, founding Morris dancer Guillermo Resto is Montague, and Teri Weksler, Lady Montague. Shawn Gannon and Megan Williams dance the Capulet heads-of-households.

As in the Martins ballet, the Friar has a pivotal role. John Heginbotham is heroic in a clear and evocative performance. True to character, Tybalt and Mercutio are the life of the party. Elisa Clark's Mercutio was especially winning Sunday afternoon—the good die young.

Morris has a section of wonderful international dances, to the music recovered from the original 1935 score. He analyzes and niftily appropriates ballet structure. Here the dances don't look forced, or even silly. Their purpose is to spirit us away from an uncomfortable predicament, the Capulet's unwitting arrangement for Juliet to marry Paris (after she's eloped with Romeo.) Morris is well versed in peasant folk forms and uses them here and in his Veronesi genre scenes. Need we really take further pains to compartmentalize ballet and modern dance?

The communion theme is brought to us with heart-stopping beauty and gay joi de vivre. It feels both very personal and universal.

From the pit, the Orchestra of St. Lukes, conducted by Stefan Asbury gives an illuminating and understated performance of the score. The production seems portable. That is, different local orchestras can, and have, collaborated when the dance tours.

Allen Moyer's marvelous scene design includes a kabuki-style drop curtain. The Romnesque pattern on it gives a sense of order that counterpoints the chaos and comforts us. Peter Martins's Per Kirkeby set instead echoes the snafu, while Moyer's balances it. Substantial wood is the unifying theme. Little wooden buildings appear briefly, beautifully crafted, but looking too fussy. For my guest, however, they recalled the Franco Zeffirelli market square. Even the swords look like they're made of wood, and make a different thud upon clashing. The wood is conceptually portable. It's believable as opulent ballroom and also merchant-class paneling. And the panels convert to wing-legs or windows, behind which a stylized night sky lights up. Lighting by James F. Ingalls is possibly brilliant, though in the oddly lit bedroom scene, the skin tones looked grayish. Reflecting on this bothersome effect, I thought, it foreshadows the pall of death that does or doesn't ever arrive.

This Romeo + Juliet raises the standard, and has us believe it's not over yet.
Rita Donahue & David Leventhal

Rita Donahue & David Leventhal

Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger


Mark Morris Dance Group

Mark Morris Dance Group

Photo © & courtesy of Gene Schiavone

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