What do we expect from something called Romeo and Juliet—or, as in the case of Mark Morris’ new version, Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare? We’ve all read it, seen it, heard the operas, watched the movies, enjoyed (or not) West Side Story. And then, of course, there are all the dance versions: Lavrovsky, MacMillan, Cranko and, if we’re lucky enough to have seen them, Ashton and Tudor. It’s embedded in our minds—and in ballet. The two roles almost all young ballerinas most eagerly hope to dance are Giselle and … Juliet.
Why? The scintillating verse of the young Shakespeare doesn’t explain this story’s grip on the world’s—or the dancer’s—imagination. (In any case, dance excludes verse and substitutes music.) Clearly, it’s the story itself, and the fate of the passionate and doomed young lovers, complete with adolescent delirium. Without that fate and that delirium, Romeo and Juliet is just a senseless anecdote and inevitably a letdown. If you’re not drawn to the youth and ardor and recklessness of the hero and heroine so that you’re heartbroken when they die, what’s the point?
Alas, one of the feeblest aspects of the Morris Romeo is the presentation of the young lovers. They’re so bland, so uninteresting, so without heat that although they have a lot of stage time, they hardly register. Morris just doesn’t know what to do with them (he doesn’t even provide them with a balcony), which suggests that he doesn’t really have a lot of sympathy for them. His vocabulary—thin throughout the ballet—is at its thinnest in their interactions, from the first moment they spot each other at the Capulets’ ball to the never-never land of their final, abstract duet. The problem isn’t that they don’t die, but that they don’t live.
The dancers are left high and dry. Second-cast Maile Okamura has a lovely lyric quality and could be a satisfactory Juliet if the ballet gave her a chance; first-cast Rita Donahue is an all-American girl—very pretty and fatally stolid. As for the Romeos, second-cast Noah Vinson was half-baked, and first-cast David Leventhal, usually an exciting presence, was barely quarter-baked. Both their Romeos are wimps (even the dull gray costume works against them).
Morris, usually so canny, doesn’t even arrange their entrances and exits efficiently—it’s as if he doesn’t want Romeo and Juliet to be about Romeo and Juliet. The Nurse (relentlessly soubrettish), Mercutio, (inevitably swaggerish) Paris (surprisingly loutish), the Prince (effectively commanding) are all more characterized and spotlighted than the supposedly central characters. The novelty of Mercutio and Tybalt being danced by women soon ceases to be novel. (Amber Darragh is guyish enough to get away with Mercutio, but as cleverly as the superb Julie Worden applies herself to Tybalt—and subtle as she is at suggesting his catlike quality—I, for one, want to see her as a girl.)
THE DRAMATURGY IS is maddening throughout. Take the final act. Romeo has killed Tybalt at the end of Act II, but he isn’t banished from Verona, so that at the start of Act III, in the bedroom scene, there’s no real urgency about getting him out of Juliet’s bed, out the window and out of town. There goes the tension and the pathos. The confrontation scene with her parents and Paris is conventional if underwrought; Juliet lingers too long with Friar Lawrence—and, like Romeo, can’t stop hugging him; the potion scene is drained of emotion—and since she isn’t going to wake up in the tomb but in her own bed, there are no phantoms to be frightened of.
Worse is to come. She downs the potion, and sooner rather than later, in troops a whole mob: Nurse, parents, Paris, servants, and a crew of dancers Paris has brought along both to entertain and to help present his wedding gifts to his bride. They dance, they strum, they produce jewels and wines and precious rugs, all only a few feet away from the sleeping Juliet, to whom no one pays the slightest attention, and who never stirs. Eventually, someone notices that she’s “dead.” Only the Nurse seems affected—the others are less grief-stricken than irritated that the wedding is off—and out they go, leaving the supposed corpse to its own devices.
In strolls Romeo through the window. He isn’t back in Verona because he’s never left Verona, but at least he seems upset that his wife is dead. He pulls out a knife with which to stab himself (forget poison). In the nick of time, Friar Lawrence strolls in and explains what has happened, and when Juliet resurrects, it’s as if she has a bad headache or a hangover—there’s no surge of happiness, no stunned relief, no drama; R. & J. just walk out through the window. That’s when the good Friar summons the household and reveals all. Instantly, Montagues and Capulets are joyfully hugging each other: Feud-wise, all is forgiven, all is forgotten. There’s no more resonance than at the end of Abie’s Irish Rose.