I finally got a chance to watch Mark Morris’ “Mozart Dances” on PBS. I started watching with some reservations, with a warning that his piece is “subtle”. But I ended up watching it, and my reaction was sheer delight. Mark Morris is a musical genius, and his interpretation of the music, through choreography, is so brilliantly literal. (That’s not a bad thing!) It’s not cerebral (where it’s so metaphoric or conceptual that it makes you think really hard), which I found a little surprising although I shouldn’t have been, because his choreography usually isn’t. In the first act, he uses a soloist, Lauren Grant, to represent the solo piano part, with the ensemble members serving as the orchestra. Simple, logical, easy to understand. Other simple interpretations of the music includes the use of a bouree to represent a trill on the piano, and emphasizing a steady bass line in the left hand of the piano by using ensemble members to run in time with each note (this last part made me laugh out loud – listeners are usually oblivious to the bass line of the piano part, but his choreography made me focus on it, and it became so obvious). A yearning lean in the music (rubato) was interpreted by a yearning tilt of the hip. A quick grace note in the piano is represented by a hiccup with the body of a dancer lying on the floor.
Mark Morris’ biggest accomplishment in this piece was that I felt like he was showing me the music. He uses fan kicks (is there a ballet term for this?) in the first act to outline a series of musical phrases, as if he was exclaiming, “This is a musical phrase, oh and here’s another one, and another one.” In the mid-program interview, he knows people accuse him of being a “music visualizer, as if that’s a crime”. This to me is a perfect description, and is a perfect vehicle for his musical genius.
Inevitably, there are always comparisons between Balanchine and Morris. Balanchine, another choreographer known for his musicality, is similar to Morris in that he is also very musical, but there are important differences. I feel like Balanchine was first and foremost a “dance maker”, a master at experimentation with the female line, pointework, and corps work. Music was an integral but served more as a launching pad for his dance experimentation. Mark Morris, on the other hand, is first and foremost a musician. I picture him with musical score in hand as he is choreographing his dances, scanning the score to see what sub melodies he could bring out using the dancers, and to see where the counterpoint of the music is precisely located. You get a sense that both Morris and Balanchine are working beneath the surface of the choreography, organizing and busily arranging, but through different approaches.
Not only does he literally visualize the music, but Morris also reacts to it. When the melody is lush and flowing, he’ll choreograph in jerky movements as if to fight against the flowiness, and the result is a simplification of the music to its downbeats. At the end of a movement in the second act, after the music stops, he will have the dancers react to the ending by doing an abrupt turn in the midst of complete silence. This afterthought, a sort of reaction to the end of a movement, is so unexpected and catches the audience by delightful surprise. He also uses music to show off his humor, which permeates throughout a lot of his work. He mentions in the mid-program interview that there needs to be a little bit of awkwardness in his work. This sort of non sequitur humor can be misleading and sometimes confusing, as viewers try to assign a sort of meaning to it. The way I see it, it doesn’t have meaning, and may sometimes is a reaction to the music (as in the movements that occur after the music stops).
A lot of the reviews reflect this confusion on Morris’ non sequiturs. This review asks, “Almost invariably, as you see these, you think: Who in the world but Mark Morris would have thought of fitting that move to this music?” But these movements really fit the music, in a subconsciously logical way. A lot of the reviews focus on Morris’ motifs, but only because they are the most tangible and recognizable element in his work (as if the viewer is saying, “Oh I’ve seen that movement before”.) I see the motifs, and see the creative ways he uses them in different ways that unite the entire piece together across three Mozart pieces. But the important point with this is, the motifs are all used in conjunction with the music, and to interpret the music in creative and different ways. I don’t think he’s using these motifs as if he is conjuring up heaven, or any images such as this.
Another feature I love about this piece is that he uses the exact same repertoire of body movements for both men and female. In this way, I understand why many have commented on the gender role reversal as a theme of Mark Morris. However, I think this is so because he uses both traditional feminine and masculine movements in both men and women. (Side tangent: Nigel Lythgoe would disapprove of feminine movements in male dancers. In fact, I’m sure Nigel would disapprove of Mark Morris entirely.)
Jen sent me this review which calls this piece “a masterpiece, a triumph for the Mostly Mozart Festival, which commissioned it, and one of Mr. Morrisâ€™s grandest achievements.” I wholeheartedly agree, it was a marvel to watch.
A quick word on Emanuel Ax: loved his playing, it’s a pity they resorted to quick shots of him crouching in the darkness in the orchestra pit. The most impressive thing was the longevity of his playing, playing two piano concertos and a piano sonata, which is basically three concerts rolled into one. His playing was brought out the deceptively emotionally complex music of Mozart, and displayed rare maturity that comes from witholding from the temptation of melodrama or playing Mozart “straight up”.
The good thing is, Mark Morris is bringing his dance company and performing the same piece, Mozart Dances, at Berkeley in a few weeks. Even better news: Garrick Ohlsson is playing the piano. I am aching to see them, but my bank account is a bit low this month. UC Berkeley students get 50% off!! I think I need to find myself a UC Berkeley boyfriend. If you’re not strapped for cash as much as I am, click here to buy tickets.
By the way, the season for Cal Performances look amazing. Mark Morris, Miami City Ballet, Joffrey, and ABT, oh my!
Look to see if Mozart Dances is airing on PBS in your area, here.