MorDance
Baryshnikov Arts Center
New York, New York

May 9, 2019
R&J Reimagined

Jerry Hochman

In March, 2017, in the course of attending a performance by Tom Gold Dance, I noticed one dancer I’d not previously seen. Something about her prompted me to check a bit before I mentioned her in the ensuing review. I found that Morgan McEwan, the dancer I noticed, had formed her own company, called MorDance, and I referenced that in the review. I filed both McEwan and MorDance in my memory.

Slow forward a couple of years, and it came to my attention that MorDance would soon be performing at Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC). I could not not attend. I went to the opening night of McEwan’s R&J Reimagined expecting little more than a bare bones version of the story and maybe the opportunity to see McEwan dance.

I was wrong on both counts: R&J Reimagined isn’t bare bones, and McEwan didn’t perform in it; she conceived and choreographed it. But the dance far exceeded reasonable expectations.

Amy Saunder and Joshua Beaver
in Morgan McEwan’s “R&J Reimagined”
Photo courtesy of MorDance

McEwan has created not only a rarity – an adult evening-length story ballet staged in a relatively small, black-box theater by a relatively small, non-established company with the financial issues that all such companies have, but a decidedly feminist Romeo and Juliet that tells the full story to much of the original Prokofiev score with significant twists that make it not just different, but outrageous – though within the parameters of acceptable commentary on the Shakespeare original. Not all of it works, but what does is not easily forgettable. It’s bloody good. Literally.

Everything is here, and more. Lots more. The feminist slant (I prefer to consider it original thinking) becomes evident early. In the opening scenes, it’s established that Rosaline isn’t a demure sophisticate chased after by a goofy testosterone driven Romeo, she’s as aggressively flirty as he is; the village young women are just as adept with swords as their male counterparts, and can be as aggressive (they give as good as they get), but they have a sensitivity to violence that the young men don’t have; and Juliet is not a strong-willed 16-year-old, but an independent-thinking 16-year-old who requires no Nurse (there’s a Best Friend, “Angelica,” instead). She’s a thoroughly modern Renaissance teenager. And Lady Capulet is the real head of the household. She’s the one who pulls Tybalt away from a confrontation with Romeo at the Capulet Ball, who supports her daughter’s refusal to marry Paris, and who sees the harm that her husband’s arrogance has caused – and does something about it. Of course, in this ballet, a romantic relationship between Lady Capulet and Tybalt doesn’t exist – she’s got too much good sense for that.

Elizabeth Rodbell (foreground)
and members of MorDance
in Morgan McEwan’s “R&J Reimagined”
Photo courtesy of MorDance

Most ballet versions of the play take liberties with it in one way or another; McEwan’s liberties are less by omission and condensation than by a contemporary sense of accountability. By the ballet’s end, Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo and Juliet are dead, as in Shakespeare, but in R&J Revisited, [Spoiler Alert!!!] the only major character who survives the carnage is Lady Capulet, who gets the ballet’s final Scream.

Before the ballet begins, the stage is set interestingly – and portentously. You just know that the strips of billowy fabric that hang from the rafters to the floor along the sides and rear of the stage area are not just there for decoration, low-budget interesting as that would have been anyway. Sure enough, just as many of the company dancers are assigned multiple roles, these gauzy, deliberately placed draperies find many uses during the course of the ballet.

McEwan’s choreography here takes a back seat to her ingenuity, originality, and vision. But it shouldn’t. If you don’t expect a lot of choreographic complexity (though there’s much more complexity here than one might expect) or a performance level consistent with those Big Ballet companies that present Romeo and Juliet in New York, you won’t be disappointed. The important thing is that McEwan’s choreography is thoroughly balletic, mostly lyrical, and, intelligently in keeping with her conception. Indeed, after adjusting to McEwan’s modifications (including a Prologue that introduces the lovers), which admittedly takes awhile, one can observe considerable choreographic variety here. Although some of the movement quality may at times lack polish, one’s attention, once things get rolling, never wanes.

Amy Saunder, Courtney Catalana,
and Mary Kate Reynolds
in Morgan McEwan’s “R&J Reimagined”
Photo courtesy of MorDance

For example, the ballroom scene may not be at the level of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s, but for its size and scope, it’s striking. McEwan here provides the audience with a visual experience of multi-colored capes that are combined costumes and props. And whether born of concept or financial necessity, the capes (and similar coverings) are a continuing visual theme. At one point a cape is converted by one of the women into a muleta with which she, the matador in this game, taunts the charging boys. Later, a cape provides black body covering for Friar Laurence – a play on the color of a priest’s clothing, as well as a symbol of character.

In this version, personalities and motivations are explored more than in many others, and McEwan develops characters in newly conceived ways. For example, instead of being a one-dimensional inebriated violent lout, which might provide an explanation for his behavior, Tybalt here is a man enraged – enough to pull down some of those curtains –  and McEwan allows us to see his rage at the thought of Juliet and Romeo together evolve in a (mostly) solo into an explosion of real and metaphoric violence (some of which occurs behind one of those curtains stretched horizontally across the stage). Seeing a man’s rage so skillfully communicated by a female choreographer is eye-opening. And although he doesn’t see much action, Paris is invested with far more character here than in other versions – he’s not just peeved that Juliet won’t give him the time of day; he’s angry about it.

Jonatan Lujan
in Morgan McEwan’s
“R&J Reimagined”
Photo courtesy of MorDance

Aside from Lady Capulet, the most significant (and obvious) change is to the character of Friar Laurence. In his version of the story (Romeo et Juliet), Jean Christophe Maillot modified the character of Friar Laurence into some sort of prescient but powerless religious force. I found the elevation of his role, and the conception of it, disappointing in what otherwise was a laudable production. Here, McEwan does the same thing – elevating Friar Laurence into a major character – but what a character! He first appears, as is standard, when Juliet and Romeo ask him to marry them. But this isn’t a kindly parish priest. He appears in that head-to-toe black cape which he wraps around his face like a hoodie, and his demeanor is sinister. When Juliet, Angelica, and Romeo approach, he’s surrounded by other company dancers wearing costumes that, compared with those in the rest of the ballet, look rather dull and non-descript. I thought maybe Juliet and Romeo had stumbled into some ongoing service, and these other dancers then became makeshift wedding guests.

Not exactly. When Juliet returns later for advice, Friar Laurence’s demeanor becomes demonic – and he’s still surrounded by worshippers as well as well as, literally, by that black cape – which now encases him, and occasionally others, within a shroud of evil augmented by dark and ominous lighting (lighting designed by Becky Heisler). He gives Juliet the potion … and then it clicked. Friar Laurence here is a cult leader (perhaps one who the independent-thinking Juliet might find more emotionally attractive than the religious figures with whom her father may have associated), the other dancers who surround him wearing garments stripped of individuality and who appear to be supplicants are his followers, and he has a ready supply of poisons and potions on hand (one of which he gives to Juliet) in case it’s necessary for them to drink the kool-aid. And after he provides Juliet with the “sleeping” potion, Friar Laurence is given a solo that shows either his torment, his viciousness, and his prescience (or his expectation) that the story will evolve as it does.

Members of MorDance
in Morgan McEwan’s “R&J Reimagined”
Photo courtesy of MorDance

McEwan’s production is faithful to the original and consistent with other ballet versions, even in its scene-by-scene progression (except for that Prologue), but some of the scenes necessarily look quite different from those one might be used to seeing. There’s no “balcony” to the balcony scene (although the pas de deux is preserved, and beautifully choreographed and executed), but in the dances leading up to it, it’s Romeo who occasionally sits as the object of desire on a pedestal. And it’s particularly remarkable that while McEwan injects much new action (and new violence) into many of the scenes, none of it looks gratuitous, and it all flows coherently. Even the sight of swords occasionally flying through the air doesn’t break the rhythm.

The piece is not above criticism, however. The opening scenes were not as strong as those from the Capulet Ball onward (which is true in many other versions also). The Prologue is a nice idea, but it didn’t really carry the point (as expressed in the program) forward. And without the sense of maturing (and occasional comedy) in the first scene that features Juliet, that scene becomes much less interesting. In Act II, when Juliet is faced with the prospect of having to marry Paris, after others retreat from the room there’s a period of time allowed for Juliet to think about what she should do (e.g., MacMillan’s famous “edge of the bed” scene within a scene). Here, however, Juliet returns to the bed to think – but jumps up almost as quickly as she sits down and runs off to see Friar Laurence. Some semblance of deliberation is needed. As long as McEwan is changing things, why did she leave Mercutio’s overly milked “Shakespearean death” essentially as is? And in the bedroom scene after Romeo kills Tybalt (the various violent murders here make the oft-criticized violence in Peter Martins’s version for New York City Ballet look relatively tame), that Romeo appearing stripped to his undershorts is logical – but why is Juliet not similarly attired? Here the feminism (if that’s what it is) doesn’t make sense. And although most of the Prokofiev score is faithfully preserved (though rearranged by Musical Director and Composer Benjamin Gallina), parts of it were played with a jazzy edge, and original material created by Gallina also sounded like jazz and to me was out of place (although I note that the audience responded enthusiastically to it).

Amy Saunder
in Morgan McEwan’s “R&J Reimagined”
Photo courtesy of MorDance

The members of the MorDance company, most of whom have extensive ballet experience, did a fine job executing McEwan’s choreography, which I expected, and when appropriate, gave clear and convincing personalities to their characters, which I didn’t. Amy Saunder’s Juliet was not only feisty, but impassioned. This Juliet appeared far more mature (in her thinking – I’m not talking “age”) than others, and far more emotionally decisive (a trait, I suppose, which she got from her mother in this production). Her murder of Friar Laurence was an unforgettable moment not just because it happened, but because of the look of intensity, anger, and desperation on her face. Her “scream” at seeing Romeo dead was here a much more difficult to credibly execute series of uncontrolled body shakes, and Saunders made them believable. And stabbing yourself three times and emerging coated in blood isn’t easy to pull off credibly – she did. Her Romeo, Joshua Beaver, was as ardent as he was supposed to be, and his partnering skills, particularly in the lifts, were commendable. And he was not at any point a milquetoast Romeo – he had an emotional core to match Juliet.

Lady Capulet is a force in this production, and Courtney Catalana delivered both the apparent intelligence and power to carry it off. On observing her (apparently) dead daughter, and her clueless husband’s lame (how could this have happened?) response, she promptly throttled him (while he was bound within one of those fallen curtains, as I recall). The idea behind creating the character of Angelica (the Nurse in Friend’s clothing) is an interesting one, and although she initially looked too young for the role, Mary Kate Reynolds carried off all aspects of it convincingly.

Amy Saunder and Joshua Beaver
in Morgan McEwan’s “R&J Reimagined”
Photo courtesy of MorDance

By far the most complex characters in this production, besides Juliet, are Friar Laurence and Tybalt, and Hector Cerna and Jonatan Lujan did superb work conveying their characters’ minds as well as bodies. Cerna (who doubled as Mercutio) and Lujan delivered the forceful characterizations that made their characters, and McEwan’s take on them, credible as well as memorable.

Courtney Catalana
and Leo McGrath
in Morgan McEwan’s
“R&J Reimagined”
Photo courtesy of MorDance

Each of the other dancers in the production did commendable work as well: Elizabeth Rodbell as Rosaline; Josep Maria Monreal as Paris; Jon Drake as Lord Capulet; Leo McGrath as Benvolio; and Kennedy Roese and Julia Lipari. And the talented musicians who provided live accompaniment, and who delivered a very solid distillation of the Prokofiev score in a chamber context, included, in addition to Gallina (bass), Insia Malik (violin), Megan Natoli (flute), Eugenia Choe (piano), Philip Mayer (percussion), and Jon De Lucia (saxophone/clarinet).

I’m open to reinterpretations of classic ballets as long as they’re not designed to sabotage the original’s essential idea, and if they can stand on their own. McEwan’s R&J Revisited doesn’t have the bells and whistles of more extravagant productions, but it’s intelligent and original, and it works. When it returns (the run ended last Saturday evening), it’s well worth seeing.