Romeo and Juliet, on motifs of Shakespeare, Barbican, London
Monday 10 November 2008
Mark Morris's new Romeo is both stripped-down and revisionist. He uses the first version of Prokofiev's score, recently rediscovered by Simon Morrison, complete with radically different ending. The settings are plain, the most macho male roles are played by women, and passion is almost entirely absent.
Prokofiev's ballet was planned for 1936. He developed a new scenario with a happy ending: Friar Laurence prevents Romeo's suicide, Juliet is revived and the lovers flee. Their families are reconciled. There's a happily-ever-after final duet, and some extra divertissement dances for the last act.
This first draft, always controversial, was cancelled after several of Prokofiev's collaborators were killed in Stalin's purges. Later Romeo ballets use the revised score of the 1940 Bolshoi production, which forced a tragic ending on the composer. On stage, most Romeo ballets are still influenced by that production, with its naturalistic scenery and monumental scale.
Morris goes to the opposite extreme. Designer Allen Moyer puts the action in an almost bare space with pale panelled walls. In marketplace scenes, the crowd bring on little doll's house versions of renaissance buildings, a pointedly artificial piece of scene-setting.
My biggest disappointment with this Romeo isn't the underpowered and no longer star-cross'd lovers; it's the lack of momentum in the big corps dances. Morris, an American modern dance hero, loves stories. Even his plotless works often have storytelling gestures – repeated poses that are both stylised and bluntly evocative. The technique can make human emotion jump out of abstract dances; in an evening-length story ballet, it has the opposite effect. His dancers stand around swapping formal gestures, repeating and insisting on plot points, reducing characters to a collection of motifs.
David Leventhal is a sweetly smitten Romeo; Rita Donahue dances with freshness, but can't break through the choreography. Lauren Grant makes the Nurse the most vivid character on stage, scampering through intrigue, quarrels and grief, while Amber Darragh is a superb Mercutio, turning one-handed cartwheels with a swagger.
The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stefan Asbury, have the greatest success of the evening. The familiar parts of the score have a grand sweep, while there's a shimmer to the chiming, tinkling orchestrations of the newly discovered material.
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