Grand, Pleasurable, and Accessible
Mark Morris Dance Group: Mozart Dances
Mostly Mozart Festival, Koch Theater | August 24 – 27, 2016
Mozart Dances (2006) is one of Mark Morris’s grandest and most pleasurable artistic achievements. This evening-length work in three sections elucidates the prominent themes in Mozart’s compositions with choreography that holds its own when paired with the music that has intimidated many choreographers. Beyond the singularity of its score, Mozart Dances is remarkable for its length—very few two-hour non-narrative dances exist, as it’s extremely difficult to fill so much time without over-repeating phrases and to present movement that’s continually inventive. (Recently, ballet choreographer Alexei Ratmansky created the Shostakovich Trilogy for American Ballet Theater (ABT), although each of its sections are stand-alone, unrelated dances.)
Louis Langrée conducted the excellent Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, with featured pianists Garrick Ohlsson and Inon Barnatan playing crisply and with charisma. Howard Hodgkin painted the expressionistic backdrops of magnified brushstrokes; each act features a different artwork of black and red hues set against primarily warm hues.
While the first act of Mozart Dances (“Eleven,” to Mozart’s Piano Concert No. 11 in F major) begins with shirtless men bounding downstage as if to greet us, they quickly give way to the company’s women, led by Lauren Grant, who originated the role. We are introduced to the vocabulary that Morris created specifically for this dance: hands clasped behind the head, elbows spread, backs to us; a syncopated, crossing tap step with a hand thrust diagonally above the head; a hand descending in arcs, like a leaf floating to the ground. Grant’s movement frequently parallels the piano line; the strong solo instrument matches her powerful presence. She enters and leaves the group of women as if checking on the proceedings, at times holding up a finger to pause the action, at another moment lying down to rest. Her dress (costumes by Martin Pakledinaz) is solid black; the other women’s, sheer shells over solid undergarments.
“Double,” the second section (set to Sonata in D major for Two Pianos) features Aaron Loux in a jaunty waistcoat, the rest of the men in dove grey shirts with black knickers. Loux, among the most classical in feel of Morris’s current dancers, spins effortlessly in turns, and glides through deep pliés, flat hands slicing the air waist high. The sequence is an example of one of many sculptural shapes that also allow the dancers to travel. One of the more dramatic phrases has Loux arching back, his arms carving stop-and-start arcs around his torso like clock hands. Six men form a circle, gliding around like a cloud. Noah Vinson enters the circle, which contains him even as an edge collapses to the floor. Though he is within this community, he still seems solitary. The women, now wearing floor-length tulle skirts, float in and out around the proscenium legs, exiting before the men line up downstage and drop their heads in a proper showy ending.
The final movement, “Twenty-seven” (Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major) unites all of the dancers, who wear white dresses or blouses. By now, accumulating in my head are images drawn from nature: passing clouds, hands that sprout as if growing, falling leaves. On her back, a woman spins on her partner’s back; they each press clasped hands overhead, creating a steeple shape with their bodies. There’s a lively folk dance feel to the proceedings, skipping to the jaunty, irrepressible rhythm. The dancers form two columns as Dallas McMurray stands at one end. Any anticipation that this might be a serious turn in the work is scotched as Noah Vinson hurls himself at McMurray, clinging to him like a koala. Soaring leaps highlight the score’s explosive percussion, leading to the conclusion when the company parts in two, each half looking tenderly toward the other.
The dance, while a major accomplishment, is so pleasing to watch in part because Morris built in moments of stillness that provide some visual rest. While he is sometimes cited for making movement that literally interprets music, here he renders large sonic themes and small details. And in what feels unusual, the performers smile because they are joyful to be dancing such rewarding movement, rather than forcing smiles. I am probably not alone in feeling that the accessible style built from everyday movement, which looks like so much fun to do, made me want to leap onstage and join in—another reason that Morris’s dance-making has resonated so strongly with audiences throughout his career.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.