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Dance

A new life for a fabled ballet

Rita Donahue and David Leventhal in rehearsal for 'Romeo & Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare.' Rita Donahue and David Leventhal in rehearsal for "Romeo & Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare." (Johan Henckens/MMDG)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Karen Campbell
Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2008

With its luminous melodies and vivid musical narrative, Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" is one of the greatest ballet scores of the 20th century. But until the composer's archives were unsealed in 2003, 50 years after his death, few people realized that the ballet we know and love is far from what the composer originally intended.

Enter Mark Morris's new "Romeo & Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare." Scheduled for its world premiere at Bard SummerScape July 4-9 by the Mark Morris Dance Group with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein, this is probably the hottest dance event of the summer.

The production returns to Prokofiev's original 1935 version of the score and restores 20 minutes of never-before-performed music, including six dance numbers. It also uses as a template the original story Prokofiev conceived with Soviet dramatist Sergei Radlov, including - spoiler alert - the provocative ending that the composer envisioned but that the Stalin regime wouldn't allow. "They live," Morris says, "but it's not a neat, button-down happy ending."

Prokofiev and Radlov reimagined Shakespeare's tragedy as the story of the transcendence of love over oppression, with two young progressives battling against feudal traditions of marriage and family. In their ending, Juliet awakens just before Romeo takes his own life.

"Prokoviev was a Christian Scientist and didn't believe in death," explains Botstein, president of Bard College and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra. "So in his version, Romeo and Juliet don't die. They go on to a new life, released from the false reality of their material being."

Soviet cultural officials were outraged and canceled the premiere productions, dismissing the choreographer and sending Prokofiev back to the drawing board. By the time he had satisfied the officials, dancers (who complained about the work's tricky rhythms), and new choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky (who wanted thicker orchestrations), parts of the score had been radically transformed.

That score has been reconstructed by Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison, Bard scholar in residence, from documents recently unveiled from the composer's Moscow archives. "When the audience hears this piece, they'll hear a time warping score," Morrison says. "They'll hear what [Prokofiev] once was, as opposed to what he became [under Stalin.]"

"I like it much better," says Morris by phone from his New York studios. "The orchestration is more transparent - less Stalinist strings, more percussion, celeste, saxophone, mandolin. And it's more through-composed. I tell the story through that music."

Morris had no desire to create "another big inflated 'Romeo and Juliet.' " he says. "Using my company instead of classical ballet is already far more interesting. It's set in Verona long ago, so the dancing is quite rough and gestural, a lot of hand language. That's the way the Italians dance and communicate. It's extremely exciting and sort of violent."

With scenic design by Allen Moyer, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and lighting by James F. Ingalls, all longtime Morris collaborators, "Romeo & Juliet" will feature two alternating casts in the lead roles: Maile Okamura with Noah Vinson and Rita Donahue with Newton native David Leventhal. Meanwhile, Morris's company brings another tale of tragic lovers, his masterwork "Dido and Aeneas," to Boston audiences May 28-June 1, in performances with Emmanuel Music presented by Celebrity Series of Boston.

The $1.3 million commissioned "Romeo & Juliet" production is part of SummerScape's music festival "Prokofiev and His World," which runs July 4-Aug. 17 and was inspired by material released from the composer's archives. "It provided a new occasion to rethink Prokofiev, but we didn't think we'd find a new version of the ballet," Botstein says. "Who better to create a new ballet than the leading choreographer with a real commitment to music? And to Mark's credit, he really gets inside the music."

Botstein says Prokofiev's vision for the ballet is as timely now as ever. "The story of 'Romeo & Juliet' is not about love, but about irrational, tribal hate, whether Northern Ireland or the Middle East or our own country," he says. "It's a parable for our time."

"Romeo & Juliet": July 4-9 at Bard College's Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts (Sosnoff Theater), Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. 845-758-7900, summerscape.bard.edu. "Dido and Aeneas": May 28-June 1 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, 800-233-3123, celebrityseries.org.

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