20 September 2009

On Motifs of Mark Morris

Mark Morris brought two west coast premieres to Berkeley this week, along with a revival of V. I was at the Saturday performance. Visitation is set to Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102, No. 1; after a pause we saw Empire Garden, set to the Ives Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, S 86. After an intermission comes V, set to the Schumann Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat major, Op. 44. The excellent live music was provided by Michi Wiancko and Cordelia Hagmann on violin, Jessica Troy on viola, Wolfram Koessel on cello, and Colin Fowler on piano. There was much excitement halfway through V when the cellist announced that he had broken a string and we had to pause. The dancers were lined up in the dark and after a moment went back to the wings. By the time someone made an official announcement explaining the pause, we were ready to go again; the dancers ran back out to their diagonal line and the audience fortunately quieted down fairly quickly.

The applause was more vociferous for V; some of that might be increasing familiarity, since it’s been here before, and some might be because it’s in the familiar Morris style: lyrical yet earthy, with witty touches. Both Visitation and Empire Garden are more somber pieces. Even the lighting (by Nicole Pearce for these two pieces) is more subdued. Visitation’s costumes (Elizabeth Kurtzman for both these pieces) are in subtle shades of gray and maroon and dark green. For a while I thought Visitation didn’t have any lifts or leaps; then I realized that it did, but in a smaller-scale way. It’s a piece that’s more psychological than spectacular, and I think would only get more interesting on repeated viewing. Because of the smaller-scale movements, it has a tremendous effect when a dancer goes up on the front part of the foot, like going on tippy-toes. There were some interestingly odd boxing/martial arts sort of moves, but again enacted as if the dancer were suppressing them.

It seemed like a very inward piece, as if it were about the complicated emotional relationships among the specific group of people dancing. It would be interesting to see it with different dancers in the roles. I realized several years ago that I’ve been watching the Mark Morris Dance Group long enough so that I recognize the dancers and the different qualities they bring, though I’m definitely not at that stage with any ballet companies (hearing from someone who does have that familiarity with the San Francisco Ballet is one of the pleasures of reading Saturday Matinee).

Empire Garden seemed inward in a different way, as if it were about a community rather than a group of individuals, a politically contained community. At several points two of the dancers are next to each other and bend forward so that a third dancer can climb on their backs and kneel forward towards the other dancers, mouth open in a big “O” as if they were political orators, or gargoyles (or both). The marches and traditional tunes Ives uses also contributed to the political air, as did the costumes: martial tunics, most with broad horizontal or vertical stripes. The tunics were brightly colored but the effect was not cheerful or bright. I particularly liked the busy second movement, with its mélange of people marching and moving and even doing what I think is called the pony.

I wonder if we’re seeing the beginnings of a different style for Morris (I almost said a late style, but I hope there’s much more to come, so I’ll just say different), a more somber, inward, and reflective style. Watching Romeo and Juliet: On Motifs of Shakespeare last year, I wondered if it was a turning point or a detour. I went to three performances, and did not regret it, though the reactions of others generally seemed more subdued. I think people were hoping for a masterpiece to set beside L’Allegro ed il Penseroso, or The Hard Nut.

Romeo and Juliet frequently reminded me of The Hard Nut, since both works basically deal with adolescents coming to grips with their sexuality. There was one lovely moment for Lady Capulet and Juliet, when the mother, remembering her own young life, mirrors the movements of her daughter; it reminded me of my favorite moment in The Hard Nut, when Drosselmeyer starts by mirroring the movements of the Nutcracker Prince, then dances with him, and then urges him toward Marie, his future partner.

But the Hard Nut has a fragmentary story, and Romeo and Juliet is more like a traditional story ballet than anything else Morris has done. That means there’s a lot more pantomime. And while people remember the intense passion and poetry of Romeo and Juliet, I think they tend to forget the plot mechanics: the plotting Friar, and the starving apothecary, and the poison that mimics death, and Count Paris’s marriage proposal, and Rosaline, Romeo’s first beloved, and so on. It’s not just passionate pas de deux; there’s a lot of plot to get through. And in the great tradition of ballets that grind to a halt in the third act so all the main characters can gather and watch the minor characters have their moment to shine, we get some delightful but totally extraneous dances from the Capulet servants while Juliet, feigning acceptance of Paris’s proposal, sinks into her poison-induced coma. (The poison takes effect long before the dances are over.)

The subject wasn’t chosen by Morris, and he doesn’t usually deal with the passions of first love, which is fine with me, since it’s not a subject I’m particularly drawn to either. No doubt he was intrigued by the challenge, since you have not only one of the archetypal love stories but a series of interlocking communities. I loved the way the dances in private homes (as in the Capulet ball) are aggressive and martial, while the public square is frequently filled with the sort of light-hearted dancing you might expect at a ball.

Much was made of the so-called “happy ending” to this work, as if it came from Morris or some general American resistance to tragedy. But it was Prokofiev and the happy-think art commissars of Soviet Russia that wanted the lovers united. And people have been sticking happy endings onto Shakespeare since the Restoration (check out the hilarious production of Romeo and Juliet at the end of Part One of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby). Even the recent Baz Luhrmann film insisted on letting the lovers revive at the same time so that they could die together (in Shakespeare, Romeo is already dead when Juliet revives). And the thing is: I’m not convinced that what Morris gave us was exactly a “happy ending.”

The lovers have run off together. With ironic abruptness, the feuding families declare peace and Count Paris takes a new bride. The last scene shows the two lovers dancing together in the dark blue as the candle-lights turn to stars. The light fades out as they circle each other round and round, and crucially, it seems to me, not quite touching. Wherever they are, it’s pretty clear they’re not coming back to town, and you don’t get the sense there will be any grandkids. In effect, they’re dead. And life is going on without them.

Irony, separation, distance: maybe these struck me in the new works as well as Romeo and Juliet because Morris is a genius at conveying convincing joy, which I think is a fairly rare quality. I’m not talking about the exhilaration of watching skilled dancers, I’m talking about joy as a quality expressed by dancers as the meaning of their dance. Bodies are inherently tragic, sagging broken back to the earth; even when you admire the youth and beauty of the dancers, it’s inescapable, and part of the poignant appeal of dance, that those qualities will not last long. That may be why I loved Morris’s version of 4 Saints in 3 Acts so much: like a painting by Fra Angelico, what might seem insipid and saccharine is instead strong and lifts up the heart into realms of rose and sapphire and gold.


jolene said...

What a lovely description of the ending of Morris' Romeo and Juliet. I haven't seen it, but I'm glad to read a different, more positive take on the production.

I hadn't seen this most recent installment at Cal Performances, but I heard through the grapevine that the audience seemed to enjoy "V" the most.

Thanks for your kind words. I think it can also be a double-edged sword in knowing the dancers too well. They almost become stock characters, and it takes a lot for them to be able to break out of the mold that I have in my head. (Although when they do, it's delightful.) I wonder if I had no knowledge of the SF Ballet company my opinions would be any different than if I had seen a performance with fresh eyes than with a familiar, slightly jaded (yet no less admiring) one.

One of my favorite Morris piece is Mozart Dances, which I've only seen on PBS. It is a "late" Morris, and a little introspective although I'm not sure if I would label it so strongly as such. A dance critic (Tobi Tobias) wondered in a recent review with Visitation and Empire Garden, if Mark Morris is losing his touch and is going downhill. I'd like to think of it more as transformation (I hope he's not losing his touch).

I love it when unexpected events like a broken cello string occurs onstage. It's fun to see how performers react to it.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I was a little surprised at the very lukewarm reaction to R&J. Maybe expectations were too high, or maybe as I said it was too much like a traditional story ballet and people were expecting Morris to be goofy. There were moments -- as when Friar Laurence twirls around briefly -- that caused some laughter, though it didn't seem particularly funny to me (maybe it's just seeing post-Vatican II masses); I had the impression people were just assuming Morris is campy (though he's not) and they figured clergymen dancing has got to be a put-on, like those calendars that show nuns smoking and whatnot.

In any event his style does seem to be changing, and I suspect a lot of people who think they know and love Morris aren't going to follow, and they're going to blame his alleged decline, instead of their inability to follow. It's just standard for any artist. Lots of people thought it was all downhill for Wagner after Rienzi. Berlioz's Les Troyens, Beethoven's late quartets . . . people thought they were crazy or showed decline and now they're considered triumphs of art. And just this summer I read a lot of articles re-evaluating Picasso's late paintings, which had always been cavalierly dismissed.

I had been thinking about the whole "knowing the dancers" thing not only because it always strikes me in your reviews how well you know them but because I saw the Morris program at SF Ballet last spring, and though I really enjoyed it I think it would have affected me in a deeper way if it had been danced by his company, because I know them.

In R&J it was fascinating to see how the different cast of lovers changed the performance: Noah Vinson & Maile Okamura brought this very youthful purity and joy in each other to the roles, while David Leventhal and Rita Donahue had more of a fiery, youthful -- uh, I guess I'll just say horniness. Not that Vinson & Okamura weren't sensual; it was just more about eroticism with Leventhal & Donahue. Both legitimate & interesting takes.

I didn't realize Mozart Dances had been televised. I saw it live and posted on it -- if you want to check it out, the easiest way to find it is to click on the "Mark Morris" tag and that will bring it up. Again, I felt some people were bringing fairly superficial preconceptions to bear instead of looking at what he was actually doing. I think that's the entry where I talk about how his public persona affects how people see his dances.

Yeah, the cello string . . . it surprises me that it doesn't happen more often, I guess. There was a famous example when I lived in Boston: Midori (very young then) was playing with the symphony and she broke a string on her violin, so she used the concertmaster's -- and a string broke on his, so she had to take I guess the second violinist's instrument. I wasn't at that concert but it was the talk of the town (at least the part of town that talked about the BSO).