Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare
Mark Morris Dance Group
Like child prodigies, enfants terribles do not last forever. As both epithets imply, there is always a fairly traumatic moment in which they stop being children. True, enfants terribles normally outlive child prodigies, at least because the label is never so strictly related to their physical age, particularly in the arts world. Yet, they too, like most common mortals, grow up and age. Take the formidable dance maker Mark Morris, who has long remained an exquisite enfant terrible and the one who regaled us with many a provocative work informed by a mischievously Peter Pan-ish approach to the tenets of high art. Like many, I was looking forward to his Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare, expecting something in line with his acclaimed gender-crossing adaptations of ballet classics such as The Nutcracker or his saucily unorthodox renditions of operatic masterworks such as Dido and Aeneas. Little did I know that his Romeo was to be the performance that signalled an abrupt change in his creative flow. His new three-acter looks like the work of a seemingly tired artist who decided to give up the ingenious artistic pranks he was once famous for. Indeed, Mercutio and Tybalt are played by two female dancers in drag and the star-crossed lovers live happily ever after at the end of the ballet. But neither solution adds that much in terms of controversy, and simply replicates ideas that have had their time. After all, most people seem to forget that a fairly long series of happy-ending ballet versions of the Shakespearean work started with Bronislava Nijinska in 1926, years before Prokofiev, whose monumental ballet score Morris refers to, started toying with a non-dramatic finale. It was in Nijinska’s ballet, incidentally, that the two lovers left at the end by boarding a plane, long before postmodernism was invented.
The lack of dramaturgically impressive ideas in Morris’s new creation is also mirrored and complemented by a rather dull movement vocabulary. Morris allegedly wished to juxtapose traditional and well-known choreographic versions of the work, such as those by John Cranko, Mikhail Lavrosky and Kenneth MacMillan, with a sort of non-ballet which indulges more on orchestrated mime than actual dance steps. The result is at first interesting but soon gets tiresome and theatrically sterile. There is too much gesticulation, in my view, and the expressive hand movements sit uncomfortably in between traditional ballet mime and Morris’s own reading of the same. Alas, such a gestural hybrid has none of the dramatic/humorous impact generated by the far more memorable gestures found in other works of his — and I am thinking particularly of those in L’Allegro and, above all, of those created for the Sorceress in Dido.
The old balletic gesture for ‘marrying’ becomes thus a rather complicated flapping affair, whereas some of the more Shakespearean-inspired movements, such as the biting of the thumb, get totally overwhelmed and lost amid a great deal of other and less significant signifiers. The well-orchestrated pantomime-cum-dance, moreover, never moves that drastically away from the known ballet versions, from which it borrows far too extensively. The outcome, therefore, looks more like a watered-down version of some illustrious choreographic antecedent than either a new, provocative alternative or a cleverly devised game of citations. Look, for instance, at Mercutio’s antics in the ballroom scene or even at his death scene, as they reproduce almost verbatim well-established ballet ideas, only performed here in a rather unappealing non-balletic way.
The performance’s sole strength, in my view, stemmed from the vivacious rendition of some characters. Amber Darragh as Mercutio regaled viewers with a splendidly androgynous young dreamer. I only wish she had been given more inventive choreography to play with. Similarly, Lauren Grant, as the Nurse, belongs to that incredible and memorable crowd of typically Morris characters most dance goers have grown accustomed to through the years. I am only surprised that she is, in real life, a woman and not a man, given that she belongs to the same category as the maid in Morris’s adaptation of The Nutcracker — masterly performed by a male dancer on points. Still, she stood out for her feisty presence and comic drive. As for the two protagonists, Rita Donahue and David Leventhal, Morris opted to stay within the fairly standard lines of two inexperienced youngsters, slightly bland and clumsy. Although such characterisation detracts slightly from the ongoing drama and adds to the overall dullness of the performance, it is thanks to such two-dimensional blandness that the choreographer manages to generate a vibrant stroke at the end, when the two engage in a boisterously joyful moment of happiness. It’s a pity it was the sole true stroke of genius.