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Mark Morris's "Romeo & Juliet".

When Mark Morris's eagerly awaited Romeo & Juliet premiered in 2008, the critics--in London, Berkeley, and New York--mainly hated it. This Romeo, they said, lacked romance.

"Passion is almost entirely absent," asserted Zoe Anderson of the Independent. The lovers "are constrained by an almost perverse reserve in Morris's choreography," argued David Dougall of the Sunday Times. There may be many lifts, allowed Jenny Gilbert of the Sunday Independent, but the love scenes "never get off the ground." Ultimately, the New York Times's Alastair Macaulay concluded, "high-flown ... romance is just not in Morris's nervous system; nor is tragic melodrama."

But the story wasn't tragic melodrama anymore. As the modern-dance choreographer explained on WQXR, he was at Bard a few years ago "to collect an honorary doctorate and I was looking for a bathroom, and [conductor and Bard president] Leon Botstein was in his office. He looked over his glasses at me and said, 'Mark, are you interested in Romeo and Juliet? A new score has been found and it's never been performed.' And I said, 'Oh, you mean the one with the happy ending?' I said the most ludicrous thing I could think of, and it turned out to be true."

People have known for a while that the Prokofiev ballet suffered false starts before it found its way to the Kirov stage--not the Bolshoi, as originally planned--in 1940. But it took Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison, excavating the archives for a history of the composer's Soviet years, to discover the original score and libretto. In Romeo & Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare--as Prokofiev and his librettist Sergei Radlov designated the ballet to signal their infidelity to the Bard--the young lovers don't die.

Romeo still leaves Juliet's chamber at the lark's call and returns after she's "borrow'd [the] likeness of shrunk death." But before he can kill himself, Friar Lawrence arrives. The lovers escape to "a grove" beyond the reach of "the feudal traditions of marriage and family," Radlov explained.

The disappointed critics gave pride of place to the Prokofiev news, but they didn't consider what difference the hopeful ending might make--that it might ripple backwards even to the story's start, inspiring a different love altogether. Having brilliantly reimagined The Nutcracker, Dido and Aeneas, and Gluck's Orfeo, Morris understands that the interpreter of a canonical text must do two contrary things at once: on the one hand, cut through the uses to which it has been put to arrive at it fresh, and on the other, sift through those uses, which stick to it like rings to an onion. For Morris, the uncensored Romeo & Juliet isn't a tragedy with a happy ending tacked on, as the critics seemed to expect. It's a reprieve from the tragedy and at the same time the tragedy's lingering, like a phantom limb, as provocative uncertainty about the genre itself. Morris is asking: If tragedy can so easily evaporate, what is it made of? What part accident, fate, custom? And how does it compare to love?

For Prokofiev, there are no accidents in love or destruction. Love (in early version of the score or late) resembles inexorable nature: unwavering in its aim even as it wends its way as delicately as a tendril up a trunk. A love motif may begin at so high a pitch it seems especially meant for dogs and angels, or it may slow to the lonely, laborious pace of a single oboe, but whatever the pitch or tempo--which varies according to the obstacles the lovers face--the melody doesn't change. Love in Prokofiev isn't whimsical. It is as inevitable as day into night, emerging to suffuse one's life.

Violence, on the other hand, is anarchic--or sounds that way at first. In his prelude to the act 1 brawl between the Capulets and the Montagues, and the fatal duel between pugnacious Tybalt and impish Mercutio, Prokofiev bounces jagged melodies from instrument to instrument like random shots fired in the air. But a monolithic force rests beneath the splintery surface. "Dance of the Knights," the tune that introduces the whole Capulet clan at the feast, marches up and down the scales without skipping a single strident step. It is as relentless as the lovers' melodies are celestial. Neither is mercurial.

As for Shakespeare, he may announce from the outset that his lovers are "star-cross'd," but that's only how it feels to them. Fate has less to do with their love than does Rosaline refusing Romeo--and less to do with the lovers' troubles than Tybalt hounding Mercutio, instead of the more reasonable Romeo, in the open theater of the town square at blinding noon.

Sure, much of the plot turns on custom: Juliet ordered "to think of marriage now," though what the thirteen-year-old thinks is not up to her, and Romeo trained in sword as well as sonnet. Yet impulse and accident are the play's engine. It's not for nothing that along with the Nurse, the minor character that Shakespeare pumps up from the source material, is careless, capricious Mercutio.

The play hurtles forward on the backs of incidents that might not have happened. The first people the Capulets' unlettered servant encounters to ask that they read him the guest list for the feast are Romeo and his friends; Friar John ends up quarantined in a pestilent home, so he can't even inform Friar Laurence that he won't be getting to Mantua. Romeo returns to Verona moments before Juliet awakens. The play's comic impulse outruns itself, and so fast that it acquires force. Bad timing has permanent consequences here.

For Morris too, accident pushes tragedy along. Just before the deadly duel between Mercutio and Tybalt, the townspeople rush, twirling, onto the stage, with one trio close on the heels of another. Collision feels inevitable. But it takes a Tybalt to tip this uncontained energy into violence, and Morris moves close to Prokofiev in assuming that such a bloodthirsty thug doesn't spring from nothing. Whenever the Montagues and Capulets run into each other, which is often because this Verona is no bigger than a proscenium stage, the first thing they do is give each other the bird. No, many--a whole Renaissance handbook of florid insult. In Morris's Verona, you can expect ruin not because catastrophe is as tightly planned as a military campaign (Prokofiev) or because the wheel of fortune is turned by the wind (Shakespeare), but because hotheadedness is this people's joy, and close quarters give them the opportunity to indulge it.

The dances at the Capulet feast for Juliet's coming out--the harrowing heart of Morris's three-hour ballet--abound in violent suddenness. They're nothing like the Kenneth MacMillan numbers for the 1965 production that Nureyev and Fonteyn made famous--and to which subsequent Romeo ballets are inevitably compared. For example, to Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights," MacMillan accosts us at curtain's rise with several militant columns of motionless, forward-facing Capulets. A bulwark of torsos. MacMillan hears in Prokofiev a juggernaut of power. Morris tunes in to the jagged noir. His men stride four abreast toward four men opposite swinging their bent and fisted arms with cartoonish belligerence; ominous sidelights cast enormous shadows on the walls. When they meet at midpoint, they jut out their chests, fling up their arms in outraged exclamation--and freeze. They have as much flare as force.

The women are dramatically feisty too. In a variation on the courtly defile, the paired dancers seem to be swatting a fly on their partner's nose. More often, though, the women are the victim of the dangerous paws, especially in dances of flirtation, courtship, and marriage: the world awaiting Juliet. In the ornate story-dance that Juliet leads off with her "stuff'd" suitor, Paris--a bully and prig in studded leather captain's hat, as if he'd time-travelled back from Christopher Street circa 1974--the pair fall away from each other swooning; the man lifts the woman in a thigh-slapping jump; they shake hands with a loud clap as if clinching a deal; and sketch a roof over the other's head that looks like they're cracking an egg. So far, so alike. But when his jagged arm hovers over hers, it resembles the threat of a slap as much as a roof. She uses her arm to shield herself and provide a window on this madman. When she peeks out from behind him as in a game of hide-and-seek, he is both hiding place and the terror she's hiding from.

In Romeo and Juliet, women learn to submit--to father, suitor, husband, and to this calculus of cruelty and desire. "And you be mine I'll give you to my friend;/And you be not, hang! Beg! Starve! Die in the streets," rages Juliet's father when she pleads to be spared marrying Paris. Morris's made-up folk dances suggest why a young woman might want to hang herself and why she usually doesn't. He presents the order of things not just in dance--what else is a choreographer to do?--but as dance to remind us that love, like dance, may feel spontaneous but its steps are learned "by heart."

Romeo and Juliet's first dance together--under the noses of distracted guests--adheres as much to custom as Shakespeare's sonneteering Romeo does. (The playwright was immersed in his sonnet sequence while composing the play). First catching sight of Juliet, the youth exclaims in singsong rhyme, "Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright./It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night." The rhyming couplets disappear as the love deepens and the story darkens. Likewise in the dance, the lovers greet each other with a stylized bow: even their romance must take itself through paces. But just as Juliet inspires Romeo to create something beautiful out of conventional hyperbolic praise--her hanging "upon the cheek of night/As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear" far outshines his earlier moanings over Rosaline--the lovers' bow is unusually plain and sturdy, though also appropriately formal: a Shaker rocking chair in place of a throne.

This and later pas de deux possess all the components of the other couple dances: besides the bows, the interlocking arms, the palms held up to palms, the clasped hands, the lifts, spins, and solo interludes. But there are no arms raised as a threat, no moves like breaking glass, no woman cowering beneath the man. Besides peace, freedom prevails. Even when the lovers are dancing together, they give each other space (as we like to say). Rather than becoming entangled, they form a single craggy line, like the gnarly limb of a tree flattened by ocean wind to bend along the horizon.

There is "world enough and time" in their love, so it doesn't matter what they do, or that they do much at all. The bedroom scene at dawn is almost devoid of steps. At one point, they sit side by side on the bed's edge and slowly lean back until they're flopped out on the mattress, where they curl on their sides and gaze at each other.

I suspect it was this casual pace that put critics off. And, indeed, what Juliet and Romeo have together isn't romance in the usual sense, because it will last forever: we sense this long before the lovers outlive Shakespeare's plot. The critics imagined tragedy and love as mirror images--one "melodramatic," the other "high-flown," as the Times put it. Morris imagines them at odds, specifically in their relation to time.

Whenever tragedy happens swiftly, it takes on a solidity, like water into icicles, that the rest of life cannot compete with. Tragedy freezes time so life is limited to the signposts along the road, with the road itself forgotten. By contrast, love takes time and stretches it, like an acid trip where you watch rust grow. At least in the Morris, it does. Love is duration in the moment, and duration doesn't have much moment. Duration is not sex, it is desire; it's not an affair, it is fidelity. It is the absence of action, or the accrual of actions that have taken too many forms to be identified with any one of them.

Let me make an analogy. In Anna Karenina, the central story is Anna's, of course, which concludes violently when she throws herself beneath a train. But Tolstoy refuses to stop the novel there, even to the point of irritating us. He won't let us dwell on her suicide; he won't let us grieve. After a short interlude with her inconsolable lover, the author turns to Levin, who is struck by an existential crisis that resolves in an Emersonian epiphany on a dusty road: the things that really matter, such as goodness, exist "outside the chain of cause and effect." Levin uncontains the Anna story. Tolstoy ends this incredibly long and engrossing novel by dismantling the engine of storytelling, since once the guiding light is everywhere, how do you decide what to tell?

Love is the Levin of Romeo & Juliet: On Motifs of Shakespeare, and tragedy is what it uncontains. Like Anna Karenina, the dance concludes by turning itself inside out. The reunited lovers leap out of Juliet's window and enter a room of stars. We live in a room (or two); they "live in love forever," Morris writes in the program notes. And it looks suspiciously like the universe. With Romeo's palm held up to Juliet's, as when this pilgrimage began, the lovers orbit each other, moving farther apart as their magnetic pull--on our hearts--increases. They are still circling after the music ends, the lights dim, the curtain falls.

In How Fiction Works, the New Yorker critic James Wood concludes: "The true writer, the free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped." That's what Morris does with love in Romeo & Juliet.
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Title Annotation:Style as Performance/Performance as Style
Author:Scherr, Apollinaire
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:2600
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