I spent two evenings last week at Mozart Dances, because I knew anything by Mark Morris would be worth seeing at least twice. Last year’s wonderful King Arthur, a parade of theatrical views of Britishness, was more of a staged opera; instead of having singers in the pit and dancers on stage (as in Dido and Aeneas, his other Purcell evening) both were visible and involved in the action, but the movements for the singers were inevitably simpler than they would have been for dancers. This time there was no opera or other vocal work as a basis; I can’t think of another of his evening-length works that is so free of story-lines, no matter how submerged or fragmentary (as in L’Allegro ed il Penseroso or Four Saints) they might be. The backdrops (different for each of the three dances and black-and-gray except for the third, which includes red; other colors are supplied by the lighting) are large curvy abstractions that look like details of Japanese brush paintings, greatly magnified. Mozart Dances, as the name implies, is more dance than narrative; the title is basic and descriptive and the three dances are named Eleven, Double, and Twenty-Seven after their music (Piano Concerto No. 11, Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, and Piano Concerto No. 27, and even those with eyes obstinately shut all evening would still have enjoyed Garrick Ohlsson and Yoko Nozaki at piano, and Jane Glover conducting the Berkeley Symphony). Morris’s ability to capture music in movement is always noted, but even after years of seeing his works it amazes me that the movements seem so inevitable yet so fresh. Mozart swirls and the dancers swirl; there’s a looping figure and the dancers make a looping figure, but it never seems like a reduction or a simple equation; in other words, it looks obvious but no one else could or has come up with it, which might be a good definition of genius. He has even succeeded in dancing about architecture (I’m thinking of the “Populous Cities” section of L’Allegro), which can only give heart to those who try to write about music.
You could always find narratives in Mozart Dances, if you were so inclined, of course. Anytime you have a dancer break away from a group, run into a group, move with a partner, or end up on stage alone, there’s an implied and fluid story. There are sudden jabbing gestures and moments when a group will stop and look upwards expectantly, or point at each other or gesture imploringly, and then the moment sinks away, but the cumulative moments help move the dance beyond the purely graceful and fluid, just as Mozart does with the music if we have ears to hear it. The first dance opens with alternate male and female dancers in a line; the men step forward, dance, and then exit the stage, leaving the entire rest of the dance to the women; this is the sort of subtle disjunction (I kept expecting a symmetrical return at the end or suchlike) that helps give a deeper ambiguity to the loveliness. Like Mozart, Morris is very witty, but I have to say I don’t find his work what you might call “ha-ha funny” the way some seem to; I’m sure everyone at any abstract dance has had to put up with the sort of audience member who giggles ostentatiously at the witty parts, lest the surrounding rows think she didn’t get it, but I think Mark Morris the Fabulous Personality can color views of what Mark Morris the choreographer is actually doing. I’ve seen him interviewed and he’s outrageous and hilarious and over-the-top in a kind of old-fashioned gay way (he also objected strenuously to having his work described as camp, which I thought was revealing), and audiences can bring that to their viewing: when he did Sylvia for the SF Ballet, some writer at the local paper made the astonishingly stupid remark that “everyone” was surprised that he treated the work seriously. I don’t know who “everyone” is, but anyone who’s paid attention to his work could have told them that Sylvia is exactly the sort of thing he would be serious about. Several years ago he did Dido and Aeneas here; the first evening was the season opener, and (I’m totally speculating here, I should point out) the party atmosphere and champagne (for the big donors and schmoozers, not for me) might have gotten to people, including Morris, because there were some giggles at his Dido. It was fascinating to return the next evening and see how he responded by making certain gestures more severe, by toning down the hair tossing, and otherwise connecting his Dido with the world of Greek tragic drama rather than drag revues; there was no giggling the second night. Even The Hard Nut, the most overtly comic work of his I’ve seen, is not a parody or deconstruction of the Nutcracker but its own thing, complete with moments of sob-inducing beauty (the pas de deux between the Nutcracker and Drosselmeier, for instance, which I have actually heard audiences giggle at, presumably because two men dancing together is by nature a campy joke). Making a separate, non-satirical thing of the Nutcracker is pretty difficult to do, based on the evidence of Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!, which is fairly enjoyable but completely lacking in the psychological integrity or emotional depth of the Hard Nut. What brought all this up is the moment in Mozart Dances when one of the men runs down a double row of dancers and leaps into the arms of a lone man at the back of the stage. I guess there was a Looney-Tunes quality to it since it involved sudden running and jumping, but I also found it incredibly poignant, which is something your standard pratfall is not going to be. But then sometimes audience laughter makes me feel like a particularly ponderous German professor of metaphysics, straining his whole life to define the origin and purpose of wit in the weltschmerzy Weltanschauung.
Making it a mostly Mozart weekend, on Sunday evening I went to Il Re Pastore, performed by Philharmonia Baroque at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, an elegant brick rebuke to my former home, the Unit III dorms across the street. It’s like a New England Congregational Church, but higher and broader, which may be what gave the voices a strange reverberate halo in the first Act; I noticed the top-notch cast (Lisa Saffer, Heidi Grant Murphy, Michael Slattery, Iain Paton, and Margaret Lattimore) adjusted their voices to the space for Act Two. Philharmonia eschews surtitles, I assume because of expense and difficulty (since they perform in so many spaces, not all of them intended as concert halls), so you get the paper-turning, -crinkling, and -folding obbligato. I read the libretto beforehand and decided I only had enough energy to listen without reading along as well. The plot is fairly simple and involves an Emperor first causing and then solving romantic complications among two couple. Beautifully as everything was sung, I wish they had avoided the temptation to play the resolution for laughs; this type of story might be alien to us, but it’s not inherently ridiculous, and in these days when what used to be our country is lumbering imperially through the world, a bad enemy and a worse friend, it might not be such a strange idea to seek instruction on the clemency and justice appropriate to Emperors. But perhaps I’m just being the ponderous metaphysician again.
The Beethoven Project
3 weeks ago