Romeo & Juliet, on Motifs by Shakespeare

The Mark Morris Dance Group at Lincoln Center on Thursday, May 14.

The oddest thing about Sergei Prokofiev’s otherwise orthodox Romeo and Juliet—the original version, the one with the telling addendum to the title, the one that ran badly afoul of Stalin’s repressive regime—is the exceedingly unorthodox ending: Romeo and Juliet live. I gasped when I first learned that, but the scenario turns out not to be the cloying, saccharine happy ending I imagined. It’s more subtle than that. Rather than say that they live, it’s probably more accurate to say that Romeo and Juliet don’t die. (“Zombies!” Sean exclaimed when I told him.) They ascend, perhaps, existing on some otherworldly plane for one final pas de deux. It’s actually quite lovely.

What’s more, it addresses my key dissatisfaction with the classic ballet version of Shakespeare’s play: the fact that all the real dancing is over and done with two-thirds of the way through. After Romeo and Juliet part for the last time (the nightingale-or-lark moment in the play), they never dance together again, not one step, and most of the dancing that does happen is plot-advancing pantomime (Juliet’s father insists that she must marry Paris; Juliet refuses; she visits Friar Laurence; he offers and explains the quasi poison; et cetera, et cetera). One could make the case that the ballet needs Prokofiev’s odd Act IV because it otherwise has no real climax.

As for my pantomime complaint, choreographer Mark Morris fixed that for me in his new adaptation, which uses Prokofiev’s original scenario and score (only recently restored). Because Morris isn’t bound by traditional balletic forms, he can put more character into the dancing, making interludes of pure pantomime less necessary. The scenes, for example, when a panicked Juliet rejects Paris and then, later, when she feigns acceptance, were actually two of my favorites in Morris’s production. Instead of a lot of arm waving, Morris delivers beautifully expressive, narratively significant dances between Juliet and her father, Juliet and her mother, and Juliet and Paris. I had some issues with other aspects of the production, but the relative lack of mime delighted me.

More broadly, I’m still not sure what exactly to think about Morris. Since moving to New York, I’ve seen a number of his works, and as much as I adored “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” to name one, I disliked Sylvia and never quite settled on how I feel about Mozart Dances. And yet whenever a new Morris work premieres, I’m always eager to see it. Now that I stop to think about that, I realize that that inclination must reflect my deepest, ultimately complimentary opinion: Morris’s choreography always intrigues me. Even when I dislike it, I’m fascinated.

One of the aspects of Morris’s choreography I most enjoy, his gender-neutral steps, boldly manifests itself in the casting of Romeo & Juliet: both Mercutio and Tybalt are played not by men but by women. I suspect that comes about partly because Morris obviously delights in subverting gender stereotypes (in Mozart Dances, he gives the women an energetic, jaunty dance and the men a delicate, innocent dance), but in Romeo, the casting feels more incidental than pointed. The characters Mercutio and Tybalt are still men; they just happen to be played by female dancers, Elisa Clark and Julie Worden, both of whom clearly relish the opportunity to play such aggressive, volatile parts. It reminds me of how contemporary productions of Shakespeare’s plays are usually cast race-blind (Othello excepted, for obvious reasons). Morris seems to be have been employing a similar principle with regard to gender in Romeo & Juliet.

Only up to a point, though: Noah Vinson and Maile Okamura danced the title roles Thursday night, with each taking the part one would expect. They have three big numbers together—the “balcony” scene, the morning after the marriage, and the dreamy epilogue—and Morris’s approach to gender complicates them to interesting, if not entirely successful, effect.

Months ago, in The New Yorker, the dance critic wrote a feature on Morris’s development of Romeo & Juliet in which the choreographer explicitly disavows the big, swooning lifts of traditional ballet: the “innovative lift” “looks like kidnapping—violence against women,” he says, rejecting the “ethereal weightlessness of the tragic lady.” That quote shocked me when I first read it (months later I recalled them sentiment clearly, though I had to look it up to get the precise wording), but I understand the point he is making. In fact, when Morris does employ more traditional balletic lifts (if not the grand, over-the-head ones), he uses them to express that oppressive dynamic—Paris aggressively lifts Juliet in a way that Romeo never does—and it’s appropriately unsettling.

Yet without that kind of swoony step, the balcony scene, in particular, feels deflated. Right or wrong, the choreographic language of ballet (and even, to a lesser extent, the more modernized style that Morris uses) codes romance—truly grand passion—with strongly heteronormative steps in which the man literally sweeps the woman off her feet, and although Morris, philosophically opposed to that, seeks to avoid those steps, he simply doesn’t have a comparably powerful language to make the same romantic point. The sexually charged morning-after scene works—he can definitely do erotic—but the starrier passion of the balcony eludes him. In spite of myself, I missed the familiar rapturous lifts of Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography.

Prokofiev’s Act IV is different, though. At that point, there is no story: Romeo and Juliet are past story, past time and place, past all physical bonds. The choreography that unnerved me in Mozart Dances—the style that I described as “exist[ing] on a different plane, removed from joy and sorrow and any other symptom of humanity”—actually works beautifully in Prokofiev’s surreal epilogue. The emotional residue of the story warms the dancing, and the austerity of the style elevates it. With Prokofiev’s glorious music as the accompaniment, the result approaches transcendence—exactly the effect, however belated, that I think the unfortunate censored composer would have wanted.