Mark Morris’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Cal Performances

What would Mark Morris be without irony? And what is Shakespeare without words? Both of those questions are answered in part by the Mark Morris Dance Group’s performance of Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare, which was presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall this past weekend.

Not to say the Morris Romeo & Juliet lacked humor and whimsy. There were many touches of that in the production—especially the sets. Comprised of three trompe l’oeil walls that resembled panels of three-dimensional wooden squares, the main set was rather like something you might find on the ceiling of a Renaissance building or the walls of a Craftsman bungalow. Into this decorative box were brought small islands of houses, to signify the town of Verona during the street scenes; a bed, to signify Juliet’s bedroom—a space that everyone in town seemed to have access to; a desk and chair, for the good friar’s cell. While the furniture was of normal proportions, the houses were shrunk to doll-house size. In between their sparse placement, the families of the Montagues and Capulets carried on their infamous feuding.

And then there was Mercutio, brilliantly danced by tall, broad-shouldered Amber Darragh, who conveyed all the character’s scampish and reckless behavior with vigorous ease. Mercutio’s choreography was quintessentially of the mindset that vaulted Morris into favor, especially in Berkeley, with its audience that thrills to intelligence and feisty irreverence.

Morris’ main choreographic trope throughout his setting of Shakespeare’s highly verbal story, however, was the translation of events—words and emotions—into specific gestures: he built a “vocabulary” of gestures that could be more or less “read” by the observer. Some of them were culled from traditional Italian hand gestures, which comprise their own long and elaborate dictionary; some were more familiar, like the middle finger “flipping off” still used to express the ultimate in derision.

Morris devised other longer sequences of narrative gesture as well. Although pantomime has a long history in narrative ballet, there was none of its characteristic prettified gesture, such as the hands circling around each other over the head to mean “let’s everybody dance!”

As unusual, deferential and intuitively accurate as this approach to adapting Shakespeare may be, dance cannot really represent the complexity of language in the original. Not that I would expect it to; however, Morris’ narrative presentation and even his choreography were rather bland—easy and natural in movement and excellently crafted to the music but bland nonetheless.

What was most startling and fulfilling in this performance was the music, which was wonderfully played by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Stefan Asbury. This version of Prokofiev’s ballet was only recently recovered by music historian Simon Morrison, who found a more or less complete copy of the music in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. The music dates from 1935 and is strikingly different from what we’ve been hearing for decades: the version that premiered in 1940 after going through numerous changes from State-minded theater censors. The earlier—and more completely original—version is not only longer, it’s got more bite, with bone shivering dissonance and harmonic and rhythmic variation. It’s super! and it’s unavailable anywhere else. By comparison, the 1940 version seems flabby.

Morris’ dancers were wonderfully energetic, as always: Noah Vinson danced a boyish and eager Romeo; Maile Okamura, while a lovely dancer, made a rather emotionally cool Juliet; Lauren Grant was a peppy and commanding Nurse, and Samuel Black, as Nurse’s assistant, was obliging and affable. Julie Worden, who danced Tybalt, was excellent as the sullen and seriously angry cousin of Juliet.

—Jaime Robles

Originally published in the Piedmont Post