Sunday, September 14, 2008

verona gets happy

This short piece was part of the fall arts preview for CCT.
LOL: my editors overrode the term "democrats" in the phrase "fellow democrats" (not "fellow Democrats"). The area the paper serves is big on red (forget saying "true blue" in print)), and these are times when democracy no longer exists as a generic idea, owned by Republican and Democrat and Green and Independent alike. Despite my objections, followed by my suggestions of "citizen" and "traveler", "democrat" became "celebrantor." What a fine indicator of the zeitgeist.

Mark Morris is the obvious story of any season — audiences love the man's deceptively simple dance style, which is as easy to read as a 1930s cartoon, and often as clever.

Easy or not, the power of Morris' art is that people from ages 8 to 80 can imagine letting the urge overtake them, hopping onstage and joining the dancers as they gambol through space like a population of fellow celebrantors. Viewers have their urge to dance ignited, then satisfied, by Morris' band of movers. That very kinship, unthinkable with, say, the Olympian dancers of San Francisco Ballet or Merce Cunningham's troupe, is what makes the 52-year-old choreographer, after decades of success, such a darling still.

This September, the Mark Morris Dance Group offers the West Coast premiere of its "Romeo and Juliet," evocatively subtitled "On Motifs of Shakespeare." It is a work that premiered at Bard College in New York in June and constitutes Morris' latest stab at classical rep, where some of his most ingenious ideas have taken flight.

What lured him to the project was the discovery by Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison of a new version of the sweeping Prokofiev score for the original ballet. It had lain forgotten since 1935, and was gathering dust in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow.

The find came complete with 10 pages of annotations by the composer, which Morris was left to interpret, and a different musical and narrative ending. Rather than a crypt, Prokofiev rebelliously sets the final scene in Juliet's bedroom and poses a romantically happy ending. Stalin's censors smelled subversion and kept the original from seeing light--love is a dangerous weapon to tyrannical regimes.

After Morris studied the score, he created a pared-down dance, which stands in contrast to the often-heavy Byzantine approach choreographers take to the Shakespeare tragedy. According to the Village Voice's Deborah Jowitt, Morris forgoes the pomp and cleaves toward a vocabulary of simple walks, clasps and iconic gestures. The result is spare yet hearty, and Verona is made a place where violence is not epic but ordinary, like love.

As a drama that celebrates passion, Morris's work is a love letter to our tribally violent world. But in its Berkeley context, it is even something more. It brings outgoing Cal Performances director Robert Cole a warm, optimistic goodbye. Cole, who made the Morris Dance Group Berkeley's closest thing to a dance company in residence, was an early adopter of the troupe who endorsed Morris' vision and could often be found in the orchestra pit, conducting. It led to one of the most productive partnerships between choreographer and presenter in recent decades.

It is a parting of sweet sorrow, and Morris' "Romeo and Juliet" is an apt "So long."

Details: Sept. 25-28, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, $42-$94, 510-642-9988,

Also recommended: American Ballet Theatre II, a 13-member troupe of young performers affiliated with the famed classical dance company, comes to Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center's Bankhead Theater on Sept. 21, $30-$45,925-373-6800,

Meredith Monk, whose sheer experimental genius makes this dancer, singer, and media artist a peerless performer, comes to Stanford University on Oct. 18 in a program titled "Songs of Ascension," $13-$30,, 650-725-2787. And the Merce Cunningham Dance Company promises, once again, to blow our minds with cutting-edge installations, events and concert work at UC Berkeley, Nov. 7-15, $26-$48, 510-642-9988,

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