Mark Morris’s Ascension in a Shrinking Summer Dancescape at Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center Festival | Rose Theater | August 10, 2018
Not long ago, a Mark Morris Dance Group summer appearance at Lincoln Center felt nearly subversive, nestled in the Mostly Mozart festival among numerous warhorse symphonies and violin recitals. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Center Festival—now defunct after seventeen years—included international dance. The festival offerings were often either cutting-edge modern, internationally renowned, grand scale ballet, or some combination, such as last year’s Jewels, with each act danced by a different prominent company.
That feels eons ago. The announcement of LCF’s demise was quietly tucked into one focusing on the expansion of the Mostly Mozart and White Light Festivals. But with this summer’s dearth of other large venue dance at Lincoln Center, and Morris’s consistency with Mozart festival appearances, suddenly the “enfant terrible” has assumed the role of grand poobah of summer dance at the cultural center.
Morris’s The Trout, named for the Schubert quintet, premiered at the Rose Theater in this year’s Mostly Mozart festival. While the music’s theme and variations provide a prime structure for Morris, the score is not a simple choice. The composition’s repetition allows Morris to bring back previously introduced movement motifs, which can seem like old friends that you’ve seen either too little and are happy to meet again—or you’ve seen too much of. (It alternated for me.) Schubert’s gently lyrical phrasing at times comes across as conversational rather than declarative, creating a rhythmically subtle, challenging foundation for dance. But Morris makes it all work in the relative intimacy of the Rose Theater, where viewers are close to both the live musicians and can read the subtlest movement.
In the opening section of The Trout, the dancers walk, first in arcs entering and exiting, then lengthening so dancers cross paths in near misses. Simply walking to such delicate and jaunty music felt like a minor act of anarchy, until I remembered Paul Taylor’s Esplanade (1975), a good part of which is made up of walking and running. Phrases build in complexity and speed, adding in kneeling, spinning, and partnering. The dance’s motifs include lifts with the front leg extended and arms parallel to it, snaking arms, and a high raised leg, arms tilted at the same angle. Another repeated move—a lift where the dancer bends at the waist, legs forming an upside-down “V”—revealed the womens’ rear ends. This exposed a foible of the otherwise elegant and cocktail-worthy sheer, colorful dresses by Maile Okamura. Oddly, the mens’ costumes seemed disjointedly casual—pale, variegated jersey tanks and pants, as if a bridal party crashed a dance rehearsal.
Noah Vinson served as a kind of emcee, emerging during segues, and introducing new motifs. In one odd-duck section that might have taken inspiration from the minor key, the dancers mimed fighting in a war, falling down injured, lobbing grenades. Morris displayed his deftness with trios and quartets, enmeshing and overlaying them to create visual and kinetic symphonics. The fluency of his phrasing is truly a marvel, and his dancers move with a natural ease, but one awkward segment sticks in mind: a series of repeated stage crossings where men hold women overhead as they shift between statuesque poses. Neither looked comfortable.
The two-hour program offered such a bounty of lush music and dance to the point where The Trout felt a bit like overkill. It was preceded by two of Morris’s well-known works. Love Song Waltzes (1989), to Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzer, hailing from the company’s Belgian La Monnaie de Munt Opera residency, when Morris created some of his strongest early work and established his strong affinity to music. The music itself begs for some good old paired waltzing, which appears at moments. Standing in a circle, five dancers “pass” a movement to the next person; such rings of dancers move carousel-style while crossing the stage, creating a rich complexity.
I Don’t Want to Love (1996) is memorable in part for its charming white costumes by Isaac Mizrahi—varied pieces featuring short-shorts and super-long sleeved poet shirts. It’s sassier than Love Song Waltzes. One verse in Monteverdi’s “Non voglio amare” is clear even for non-Italian speakers—“no, no, no!”—and the movement makes this literal. Three dancers face a man and flutter their fingers toward their own chins in a kind of hilarious, vague microagression. Affectations creep in: stuttering bourrées, flat hands miming a window, hands forming hooked claws. But the overall playful, somewhat teasing mood, continues to charm.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Lincoln Center Festival featured a daring mini-series of Israeli dance, and the National Ballet of China performing the weird, stunning Red Detachment of Women. The possibility of those unorthodox choices seem dim for the institution now. The forthcoming White Light Festival’s dance line-up features Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Company Wang Ramirez, and Akram Khan. The productions must align with the broad artistic mission of “embracing individual contemplation and communal artistic experiences,” and bringing new artistic experiences to audiences becomes perhaps a second thought. Lincoln Center Out of Doors this summer presented Dance Theatre of Harlem, plus a class with Mark Morris Dance Group. In this context, a Mark Morris premiere at the Rose is summer’s big dance news indoors at Lincoln Center.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.