Romeo, Juliet, Rabbit and Rogue

Since the world clamors to know (well, I made that up, but we can hope), I found Mark Morris's modern-dance version of Prokofiev's original version of "Romeo and Juliet" at Bard College thin, reasonably enjoyable, capable of considerable improvement and hardly worth the vituperation its foes have heaped upon it.

First, the recently unearthed 1935 score and scenario are inferior to the Soviet-approved revision seen at the 1940 world premiere. Romeo and Juliet capering in heaven is hardly as cathartic as their tragic deaths; to avoid Shakespeare's ending seems like mere Prokofievian bad-boy brattishness.

Second, some of those who disliked Morris still praised Leon Botstein and his musical performance with the American Symphony. I found it lead-footed and clumsy. Perhaps Botstein needs to further hone his conducting skills, but perhaps the Soviet score needs to be thinned out to match the notes for orchestration he apparently left in the short score, which he never orchestrated himself. A lighter, more fluid musical performance might better suit Morris's choreographic style. And less like a weakly wagging tail on an overly robust dog.

Third, the (vaguely homophobic, even when bruited by gays) notion that Morris is uncomfortable with heterosexual dance duets seems silly. Anyone who saw his half-hour duet for the concluding "ballet" in Simon Rattle's note-complete Glydebourne version of Mozart's "Idomeneo" would be disabused of that idea. If the music at the end of this "Romeo" sounded like a pale reworking of earler themes in the score, that was maybe due in part to the thinner orchestration.

That all said, Morris's "Romeo" could use some work. He faces a real problem, in that we are all used to seeing this music danced by our grandest ballet companies, and the dancers stretching ballet movement vocabulary to its limits. The best Morris dancers convinced because their grace, their pointed feet, evoked ballet. Whether using actual ballet steps, as in his San Francisco Ballet "Sylvia," or working with his own troupe as he did here, Morris tends to underchoreograph the big moments in these evening-long story ballets. I liked some of the recurrent motifs in this "Romeo," like the title figures' coltish backwards kicks, but their dance relationship needs to be deepened.

Still, there is material here well worth developing, and Morris is still a major choreographer with an ongoing career to unfold. The case of Twyla Tharp, whose "Rabbit and Rogue" was the only new work in American Ballet Theatre's otherrwise predicatable rehash of the "classics" at the Metropolitan Opera House this spring, is sadly different. She was such an innovator, as an experimental dancer nearly 40 years ago and in her early forays into ballet. Unllike Morris, she seemed to know exactly what to do with ballet vocabulary, how to extend it and enliven it without compromise.

But even from the start she had a fatal predilection for gaseous, clumsily symbolic scenarios. In recent years she's given us her truly embarrassing Bob Dylan musical and now this new ballet for ABT. It was full of rather too insistent energy, but to what end, and in what way a betterment of her earliest ballet experiments? Energy became merely hectic, and the story-telling cliched.

It's sad, but she has done such great work, and is still full of such vigorous determination, that one can hope for great work to come. In the meantime, she has now, at long last, managed to organize a devoted cadre of disciples who fan out across the country and the world, staging her classics. So at least Twyla is everywhere still with us -- if not, one hopes just for now, great new Twyla.

July 19, 2008 3:32 PM |


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