Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou?

Mark Morris brings a unique sensibility to an old romantic tale.

Mark Morris is to modern dance what Béla Károlyi is to gymnastics: A bearish presence in a delicate medium, consummately successful and rigorously imaginative, but better known for his outsize personality. He is, according to many admirers, large, boisterous, ingratiating, wryly humorous, technically exacting, and often a little tetchy. He has a classical sensibility but poaches liberally from a wide range of sources, including — but not limited to — Balkan dance, Flamenco, Balanchine, the films of Sergei Eisenstein, the Roman poet Virgil, the comic book artist Charles Burns, Merce Cunningham, and Henry Purcell. His Nutcracker spinoff The Hard Nut is a holiday tradition in Berkeley, famous for its kitschy 1960s mise en scène and protean gender roles. His 1989 production Dido and Aeneas provides a darkly romantic interpretation of the 17th-century baroque opera. This year Morris filched and recobbled another great work from the ballet canon — Romeo and Juliet, as interpreted by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev.

As always, Morris genuflects to his source material but takes liberties with it, to marvelous effect. To get a look for the production he studied Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible — a film known for its painterly composition — and hired costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, who combined a medieval aesthetic with elements of Russian constructivist style. Thus, Morris’ version harks back to the ancient folk tale, but gives it the cast of Prokofiev’s era. Morris also drew from a book of Italian hand gestures and incorporated them into the body vocabulary of his dancers. He staged more solo dances and duets in Romeo and Juliet than is characteristic of his productions, perhaps to wring all the dramatic juice out of these characters, and bring sexual tension to the fore. As always, gender-bending abounds: in this case, two principal male roles — those of Tibalt and Mercutio — are played by women.

It is, by all counts, an incredibly sensual performance — one that verges on being dirty, said dancer Maile Okamura, who plays one of two Juliets. Yet, she continued, Morris hardly takes a prurient interest in the story; rather, his version is meticulous and incredibly sensitive, and each movement is imbued with its own energetic quality. Having danced for roughly two decades with many well-known repertory companies, Okamura finds something singular in Morris. “The connections that he makes in the world are the same as the connections he makes in his choreography,” Okamura explained in a recent phone interview. For her, the choreographer’s vast repository of knowledge is less important than his creative thinking and singular form of expression. “He can find beauty and humor and sadness in a pattern on someone’s shorts or the way a coffee cup is lying on the ground,” Okamura said. “And he puts all of this in his dances.” Romeo and Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare runs Thursday through Saturday, September 25-27 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. $42-$94.

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