Never-ending love

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday September 30, 2008
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Maile Okamura and Noah Vinson in Mark Morris Dance<br>Group's <i>Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare.</i><br> Photo: Gene Schiavone
Maile Okamura and Noah Vinson in Mark Morris Dance
Group's Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare.
Photo: Gene Schiavone

So it turns out that Prokofiev did not intend the monumental, heartbreaking Socialist-Realist Romeo & Juliet that everyone has heard (or at least heard of), that made the ballerina Galina Ulanova the biggest name in the mid-century ballet world, and that launched a thousand derivative productions. Prokofiev's original score - the one with the happy ending - has turned up, and Mark Morris has just choreographed a modern-dance version of it which casts a more delicate spell: wittier, more tender, less crushing. Cal Performances opened its season with the West Coast premiere of this sparkling ballet this past weekend in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall.

This version may be too light for some - Noah Vinson as Romeo looks 15, like Donatello's David - and the tone of the whole is more like Brecht, with frequent reminders that we are looking at a representation. I found the whole evening fascinating, even though there were places that were so Charles Ludlam I found myself hard-put to hang in there. Still, the spell, though stretched thin at times, never broke for me.

Morris' staging is not realistic - he creates his Verona by placing vividly costumed people behaving like Italians on a nearly bare stage, with a bed if one is needed for a scene, but with mere dollhouse versions of the cathedral and marketplace. Dancers will sit on them when not joking or quarreling with each other. In this respect, Morris has broken with the all the main ballet Romeo & Juliets, which have been like Cecil B. deMille's huge spectacles, with realistic scenery and huge numbers of people creating turbulence onstage.

Morris' vision is consistent, and the strengths of the show are great. The music is answerable: you can tell that's a saxophone making that unearthly sound in Friar Lawrence's chapel. The modern-music specialist Stefan Asbury conducted brilliantly, with clear textures and rhythms. I found myself tapping my foot in the folk-dances.

Martin Pakledinaz's costumes create a blaze of heat, energy, and glamour. Verona is not a big town, but what a sense of style they have. The ball gowns have gold tops with circular skirts that look like Leger designed them - bold, simple geometrical figures that flash magnificently in the quadrilles, and give the dancers' remarkably sharp posturings a magnificent panache.

The most revolutionary thing Morris has done is to leach out the ideology and filter in more tenderness than I've ever seen in any production of this story. The ballroom dances are usually an allegory of family pride, of all the forces that will destroy the lovers on the altar of patriarchy. Morris has backed off from that critique. He has made Juliet's parents a loving couple who love her.

The biggest surprise of this Romeo & Juliet was Lady Capulet, who is not carrying on an affair with Tybalt, nor eaten up with family pride. She's a glowing, mature woman, danced with majesty and great affection by Megan Williams. When we first meet Juliet, she and her mother dance together, the mother behind, shadowing her child, though the older woman throws herself into the steps with a grander e'paulement: she's overflowing with happiness for her daughter.

The biggest test Romeo has to pass is how he takes Juliet's hand. Paris (Braden McDonald), the guy she's supposed to marry, grabs her hand as if he does not know where she is. We can see that he is hurting her every time they are partnered. He crunches her hand, he wrenches her shoulder, and he does not know he is doing it. It's not his intention to do so; he's just an ox.

Noah Vinson as Romeo approaches Juliet (Maile Okamura) full of wonder and playfulness, and in their first touch, they lift their hands towards each other, palm towards palm, as if the other were in the mirror. The movement itself creates the sense that the other person is the fulfillment of a fantasy, "the god of my idolatry." This is the first R&J I've seen that is more about affection than about sex.

Morris' invention is weakest, surprisingly, in the folk dances, which go on too long, and in the balcony scene, which is also too long. The whole ballet is too long; this "lean" treatment must make its effects and keep moving. But all the solo variations are apt and effective characterizations. The imagery is often wonderful, especially the plastique in the ballroom dances. The love dances are ennobled with airy floating pirouettes of a heavenly softness and rotation, and a generously classical line.