Saturday, October 6, 2007

Mozart Dances

Joan Acocella is a wonderful writer about dance (or pretty much about anything). Writing about dance for a non-specialized audience is very difficult; you have to manage to say intelligent things without employing the technical vocabulary that dancers and choreographers use to describe movement, since that vocabulary wouldn't be generally understood. There's a similar problem in writing about music, of course, but with a piece of music a writer can often refer to a score or a recording to refresh her memory; with dance, there's only the fleeting moment-by-moment configuration of bodies onstage.

I think Acocella does a particularly amazing job of capturing what it's like to see dances by Mark Morris. She's written an excellent full-length book on Morris whose only flaw is that it came out 15 years ago, and so is overdue for an update. Still if you're at all curious about Morris I recommend the book highly. Acocella published a substantial piece in the New Yorker recently about Mozart Dances; I'll give a link at the bottom of this post to the article, but in fact this is one of the rare occasions when I disagree with her perceptions about the piece.

When the Mark Morris Dance Group is in town, my partner and I always buy tickets to two different performances. We were especially glad that we'd done it for Mozart Dances, which struck us as being among his best recent works. It's in three parts: "Eleven," danced to the Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, K. 413 from 1783; "Double," danced to the Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K. 448 from 1781; and "Twenty-seven," danced to the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595 from 1791, the final year of Mozart's life. In Berkeley, the first and last pieces were performed superbly by pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jane Glover; the fiendishly difficult Sonata for Two Pianos was played by Ohlsson and Yoko Nazaki. All received well-deserved ovations at the final curtain. I've gotten used to hearing period instruments in this repertoire; I'd forgotten how lush modern instruments can sound. Morris insists on having live music to accompany his dancers, and it makes a huge difference.

Apart from a brief dance for the men of the company at the outset of "Eleven," it's a piece for the women. They're dressed in black (except for the soloist, Lauren Grant, Mark Pakledinaz's costumes are gauzily revealing without being particularly sexy), and if women dressed in black bring up associations of mourning, I think they're not inappropriate to this dance. Mozart's music offers both light and shade, but the movement in "Eleven" is consistently dark in tone, or so it seemed to us. Except for Lauren Grant's periodic solos, the movement is very austere (and often quite beautiful), reminding me in places of moments from Morris' version of Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas. There is a disturbing recurring moment, though: women lie on the stage, then suddenly twist their torsos and necks and stiffen their arms and legs, stabbing outward. It's a gesture of horror, pain, and perhaps death, and it's the final image of the piece.

In the middle piece, "Double," it's the turn of the men. The soloist in this one was Joe Bowie, a long-time veteran of Morris' troupe; he's a beautiful dancer, and it was wonderful to see him featured. Again, the music had a brightly sunny quality in its outer movements, but the dancing reflected a more somber mood. Bowie's first entrance is backwards, hands raised upwards as though to ward off a blow or to block something too horrible to bear from view. The other dancers echo (or is it double?) his movements, but only Bowie seems to invest them with a foreboding quality. If there's a narrative here, it's that the other dancers imitate him, without really understanding what he's showing them. In the middle movement, something extraordinary happens. The women return briefly, dressed in long, flowing gowns; they look like the malevolent wilis from a particularly effective production of Giselle. And indeed, they surround dancer Noah Vinson while Bowie runs around their unbreakable circle looking in vain for a way in. It's a rich moment: are the women protecting Vinson from Bowie, or is Bowie trying to rescue him from them?

For the final piece, "Twenty-seven," the entire company is onstage, and now dressed in white. Many of the movements seen earlier return now in different contexts, but a new one appears: a kind of beseeching or supplicating gesture, where groups of dancers reach out to others emerging from the wings, but the expected joining of hands never happens--instead, those being supplicated hold up their hands in a rebuffing gesture, or echo the supplication gesture without making contact. In Acocella's article she writes that she sees in this "loving friendship"; to me it seemed more like something had gone wrong, that emotional connections had been damaged or broken. Morris himself compares the gesture to the end of Mozart's opera Cosi fan tutte, where two couples, wounded by infidelity, may or may not get back together. That Acocella didn't perceive this is due to the music for this section, which repeats a happy folk-like tune over and over; but in many places in Mozart Dances the music is suggesting one thing while the dance is telling us another. For a choreographer who is sometimes accused of slavishly illustrating musical structure, Morris has done something striking here: he uses the structure, but alters the emotional meaning.

In one other place I have to disagree with Acocella's article. She writes that because Morris's newer dancers are more technically accomplished than his older dancers, his current troupe should be more celebrated. While I'm not competent to make technical comparisons, the dancers from the first decade and a half or so of the Mark Morris Dance Group were all vivid personalities as well as superb dancers. After seeing them once or twice, we knew all their names. They could dance beautifully in unison while at the same time maintaining their distinct individuality. Now his dancers are more anonymous-seeming. There are exceptions--David Leventhal and Lauren Grant are instantly recognizable--but most of his newer dancers are young (many have come into his group right out of college) and they don't leave as strong an impression. Perhaps greater uniformity is what Morris is looking for now, but I miss Tina, Mireille, Ruth, and Guillermo. Morris' new dancers have program bios that list their BFAs in dance from Julliard; Guillermo's bio used to consist of one sentence: "Guillermo Resto dances with Mark Morris."

Joan Acocella's New Yorker article on Mark Morris's Mozart Dances can be found here.

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