Mark Morris’ Dance Moves Meet Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet Score

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Attention LA: Tonight marks the start of the 2009 Classical Music season at the Hollywood Bowl, and like many orchestras before them, they’ve chosen the universally beloved Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev to kick things off. The romantic, evocative symphony has been the backdrop for numerous renditions of the archetypal tragedy since its composition in 1934, but few people know it has only been performed once as the composer envisioned — at New York’s Rose Theater in May 2009.

When the Bolshoi commissioned the ballet from Prokofiev, he worked with the theater’s manager and dramatist on a radical re-envisioning of the story’s ending. The way Prokofiev and his crew saw things, there was no need for the youthful lovers to die. From their point of view, living at the still-hopeful dawn of the Soviet Union’s bold experiment with communism, so much about the world had already been drastically re-imagined. Why not Shakespeare, too?

In a move intended to recast the protagonists not as hapless star-crossed victims, but as symbols of the strength, power, and purity of youth (and of the nascent state itself), the couple’s plan succeeds. That’s right — they don’t die. They escape into a twilight world of freedom and joy, the promise just beyond the horizon, the future of the state now freed from the shackles of an oppressive church-run society based on greed and outmoded visions of materialistic tribalism.

Everyone involved with the production except the composer himself was eventually targeted by the increasingly roided-up regime, jailed and/or executed before the work was ever performed. The suppression of this vision remained one of Prokofiev’s greatest personal demons, despite the success he went on to achieve in his lifetime.

Mark Morris Dance Company’s deft interweaving of classical and contemporary, modern and historical, modes of movement and dress, finally gave the original version its due, with a glorious production at the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex; the four-day run will doubtlessly lead to more and bigger stagings. In the meantime, head over the Hollywood Bowl tonight, and when they get to the end, close your eyes, look up at the starry canopy — so much like the world the lovers reach in the finale Prokofiev imagined — and remember, the composer wanted them to live.

Click here for a video interview where Morris discusses the production with the New York Times.