Revisiting Romeo & Juliet

Simon Morrison wasn’t overly enthusiastic about researching Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo & Juliet.” He
Mark Morris Dance Group dancers David Leventhal and Rita Donahue rehearse the company’s new production of “Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare,†which will make its world premiere at the Bard
Mark Morris Dance Group dancers David Leventhal and Rita Donahue rehearse the company’s new production of “Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare,†which will make its world premiere at the Bard

Simon Morrison wasn’t overly enthusiastic about researching Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo & Juliet.” He figured that there wasn’t much mystery surrounding the well-known ballet score. But the Princeton University musicologist was in Moscow and writing a book on Prokofiev. “It was a matter of course,” he said, to dig into the original manuscripts.

What he found surprised him. Essentially, the beloved score that ballet devotees cherish bears little likeness to the composition that Prokofiev wrote. The original 1935 score, sealed away in the Russian State Archives of Literature and Art, was censored by Josef Stalin’s cultural police.

Now, 73 years later, it will finally be heard. The world premiere, set for July 4 at the Fisher Center at Bard College, will be fully realized with a new $1.3 million production by choreographer Mark Morris. The American Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Leon Botstein, will play the original score, which features an additional 20 minutes of never-before-heard music.

Anticipation builds

Not surprisingly, the press has hailed the premiere as “the dance event of the summer.”

Mark Morris Dance Group in ‘Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare’

WHERE: Bard College, Fisher Center, Annandale-on-Hudson

WHEN: 8 p.m. July 4 5, 8, 9; 2 p.m. July 5 and 3 p.m. July 6

HOW MUCH: $20 to $75

MORE INFO: 845-758-7926 or

“A lot of dance companies were interested in the music, including New York City Ballet,” said Morrison, who was a scholar-in-residence at Bard. “Mark Morris was right. I love his work. He is a fascinating, musical choreographer. His dancers are virtuosic.”

The premiere, which two of Prokofiev’s grandsons will attend, will kick off the college’s seven-week salute to the Russian composer. The summer festival will survey Prokofiev’s life and works with concerts, films and symposiums. Yet the centerpiece is the six-day opener — the run of what Morris dubbed “Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare.”

Morris altered the title to distinguish his “Romeo & Juliet” from those rendered by such choreographers as Kenneth McMillan, John Cranko and Peter Martins. These well-known versions were driven by the music that Prokofiev hardly recognized at its premiere as it was reframed by the Soviet censors to be more romantic, traditional, tuneful and accessible. They also added its multiple repeats.

“The strings were thickened, brass was added,” said Morrison. “The censors thought that Prokofiev score was too complex, too dense for ‘the people.’ When they changed it, Prokofiev complained. But they were teaching Prokofiev a lesson.”

Besides considering the music inaccessible, the Soviet government also disapproved of Prokofiev’s ending. In the composer’s original, Romeo and Juliet don’t die. Juliet wakes before Romeo drinks the poison and then the two retreat to a utopian plane.

Politically correct

“Under Stalin, the cultural establishment was becoming increasingly conservative,” said Morrison. “Experimentalism, anything futuristic was censored. Prokofiev was coming from Paris. He was an iconoclast. But when he came back to Russia, everything had to be on politically correct lines.”

Once the original manuscripts were found, Morrison sought permission from Prokofiev’s estate to copy the score and restage the ballet. His surviving son, Serge, who lives in Paris, happily agreed. Morrison then approached Botstein, who is not only a conductor, but is president of Bard. Botstein, who called the find “thrilling” and one of the “genuinely significant moments of discovery,” approached Morris with a commission.

“I could have done ‘Romeo & Juliet’ any time, but I didn’t like it,” said Morris. “I found this [original] music fascinating and interesting, less bombastic. It was more varied and made more sense.”

But like the original, said Morris, “it’s romantic, tragic and violent. It’s pornographic, really randy. I can’t believe young people read it in school.”

The ending of Prokofiev’s ballet is still tricky, as it is more conceptual than real. And while Romeo and Juliet don’t die, Morrison said the finale is not a happy one.

“It’s sadder than the tragic ending,” said Morrison. “You can really only believe it if you believe in dreams.”

Morris would not say how he envisioned the last act. He would only say that the dance’s final minutes, which are no longer ushered in by the old epilogue, is a duet. And it is not set in a tomb.

The immortal lovers will be portrayed by two alternating casts — Maile Okamura with Noah Vinson and Rita Donahue with David Leventhal. The premiere will also see the return of some Morris alumni. Retired dancers Teri Weksler and Guillermo Resto will appear as the Montagues and Megan Williams and Shawn Gannon as the Capulets.

Not surprisingly, this is not the only world premiere that Morris will be busy with this summer. Just a week before “Romeo & Juliet,” Mark Morris Dance Group will premiere a new work to “Excursions” by Samuel Barber at Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass.

“I’m rediscovering Barber. It’s wonderful,” said Morris.

After Tanglewood and Bard, the company returns to Brooklyn and then tours to New Zealand. In the fall, the company will dance “Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare” throughout Europe and the U.S.

Morris and Morrison are not sure if audiences, who have grown to identify with the Stalinist version, will embrace Prokofiev’s original concept. Morrison expects some resistance.

“Nothing will replace the tragic version. It’s too well-established. People should think of the original version as the director’s cut. But people should remember that the version they know and love is the Stalin-approved version.”

Like it or not, Morrison is sure that Prokofiev would be pleased.

“I think he would adore what Mark is doing and to hear the tempi, rhythms restored. I think he’d be happy, I don’t see why he wouldn’t. It’s a huge work, a huge artistic statement. It’s gorgeous.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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