Mark Morris puts his creative twist on a 'new,' less tragic 'Romeo & Juliet'
Using the original score by Prokofiev, Juliet awakens in time for Romeo to see she's alive
Mark Morris, the choreographer-performer and sometimes-conductor who has been the enfant terrible of the contemporary dance world for more than 25 years is about to première his full-length version of "Romeo & Juliet," set to Sergei Prokofiev's score. But true to Morris practice, he'll surprise his audiences. This version will have a happy ending, and don't expect to find a balcony anywhere on stage.
In truth, the idea belonged to Prokofiev and Soviet dramatist Sergey Radlov, who wrote the scenario. The composer's original score, dating from 1935, was recently discovered by Princeton musicologist, Simon Morrison, at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow. Although the ballet, based on Shakespeare's play, has become a classic since its 1940 Russian première by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, the score has never been performed according to the composer's intentions. Soviet censors forced Prokofiev to reverse the ending he intended, add solo dances for the ball and balcony scenes, and make other changes.
"Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare" opens July 4 at the Bard College Summerscape Festival. The evening-length work will tour to Berkeley, Calif.; London; Urbana, Ill.; Norfolk, Va.; and Lincoln Center, N.Y.; during the 2008-09 season.
How did this project come to your attention?
Simon Morrison found the manuscript and told Bard College about it. It was brought to my attention in 2006 when I was getting an honorary degree from Bard. Leon Botstein [the president of Bard] mentioned it to me. Bard is sponsoring the re-creation. Leon Botstein is conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. We have a lot of other sponsors, including my company.
What intrigued you about it?
It's not the same oversized, bombastic score that everyone is used to. It makes more sense, [is] more interesting and varied. I like that it's not the automatic Shakespeare ending. I love Prokofiev. I haven't done Prokofiev before. [Morris has taken on composers such as Tchaikovsky for "The Hard Nut," the choreographer's resetting of "The Nutcracker" in 1970s America, as well as many other classical and popular scores.]
What about the new parts to the score?
There is some music that has never, ever been heard before. That doesn't mean it's unrecognizable. There are themes you know. The ending is completely different, the last several minutes. There are also things in different places. Prokofiev didn't recognize [the staged version]. It's so adulterated. It couldn't be performed until Stalin approved it. He was a ballet fan. The difficult rhythms were evened out; variations were added; things were reorchestrated. Very much a mess was made of his work. This is a restoration.
Has it been reorchestrated?
The manuscript noted what the orchestration was. Prokofiev wrote at the piano, but we know from the suite he approved how it should be done. It isn't redone. We're using some 50 musicians. It's usually done with a gigantic orchestra, 70 to 80 people. That doesn't make it better, just louder.
This is a huge work to set on stage. Will it just be your company?
My company is 20 dancers; there are 26 in the work, plus two covers. We have two pairs of guest dancers who are alums of my troupe, to play the roles of the parents.
Did you think about dancing the role of one of the fathers?
I can't be in it; it's too complicated. I was thinking I'd be the Prince of Verona but there's no way.
Do you ever think about performing again?
Sure. I've done it every year. I'm not gone forever. I'll be back. This is such a gigantic piece and we have so much work now.
What are the surprises in your 'Romeo & Juliet'?
It's very rough; it's pre-ballet and pre-Italy. I've never seen a 'Romeo & Juliet' that wasn't by a ballet company. It's my company, wonderful dancing actors. It's not that friendly, quite violent. The set is three big walls that travel. They contain everything we need and a patterned floor. All the sets and props are wood; the swords are wood, the furniture. I didn't look at early Renaissance dance. I trained all the fencing. I used to fence as a kid. I made up the sword fights; there's a tarantella.
What are your thoughts about the ending?
It's not exactly happier ever after. They're in love forever – I know that – but they don't die. Part of it is Prokofiev. He was a Christian Scientist. He believed in the transcendence of death; that your spirit doesn't die. Prokofiev and his librettist wanted the work to be about the new generation and moving on to the future – in Soviet style – down with the old, up with the new.
• The Mark Morris Dance Group's summer 2008 schedule includes dates in Toronto; Lenox, Mass., at the Tanglewood Music Festival; and New Zealand. For more information, go to http://markmorrisdancegroup.org/performance_calendar.