It’s difficult to think of a better way to bid farewell to a New York summer than with Lincoln Center’s “Mostly Mozart” festival, and seeing Mark Morris Dance Group performing Mozart Dances was the icing on the cake.
From the sound of them, you’d never know the three works Morris chose were written in the last decade of the composer’s short life. Performed by Garrick Ohlsson with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under the baton of Louis Langrée, Mozart’s piano concertos (11 and 23) and double piano sonata (Ohlsson was joined by pianist Inon Barnatan) collectively sounded light, sprightly and enchantingly melodic on Wednesday night’s performance.
Commissioned to commemorate Mozart’s 250th birthday and first premiered in 2006, Mozart Dances opens with a dance for women, followed by one for men and closes with the full troupe in robust action. The right amounts of theme and repetition are sprinkled throughout to give all three dances the sense of a cohesive whole. There are whirlwind centrifugal turns (heads back, arms out, bodies spiraling), coquettish relevés (particularly for the men), and an alluring sense of suspension, where gravity is both embraced and challenged. When Lauren Grant arcs back in a deep cambré it is as if she is merely dangling backwards over a tree branch. Arms in a modernist high fifth also have a pendulous, but never droopy, quality. The looseness never loses form with Morris, who uses the skeletal frame and structure of the body as a foundation rather than something to rebel against, providing his source of symmetry and asymmetry, and choreographic freedom. Jumps have a popping buoyancy, like a champagne cork, and leave no trace of the effort it took to get there; memory clings only to the height and hovering suspension the dancers achieve.
Eleven, the first dance, is particularly pastoral, and its larghetto movement opens with strings sweeter than a chocolate box. Tinged with somnambulism, the women fluctuate between wilting movement and sudden wakefulness, like a drowsy daydream on a rainy day. The final movement sees the women striking strong, expressionistic and athletic poses, before ending in a sensitive, demure B+.
Double, set to the double piano sonata in D major, is set mostly on the male dancers. With Aaron Loux in a 18th century-style jacket, and the other men in loose, gauzy white blouses and breeches, a dandyism colors the entirety of the movement – the rococo world of Meissen teacups and men in heels is just a whisper away. There are light relevés, flexed wrists, and steps high on the toes. This lightness is juxtaposed with moments of vigorous, less dainty movement – lusty lunges, turns, and a fun, witty, surfing motion which starts here and will recur for the duration of Mozart. There is some gentle, simple, elegant partnering for two male dancers and the final movement is energetic, full of Morris’ pedestrian movement and lofty petit allegro. Morris’ talents are multiple and one of his great gifts is successful ensemble movement: dancers come, go, rejoin, leave again and some stay on the stage but the action continues. The momentum doesn’t ebb but is never overwhelming, cluttered or predictable. Many contemporary choreographers could take a cue from Morris’ intelligent use of formal structure, which creates a satisfying harmony and sense of completeness, without ever being dull.
The final dance, Twenty-seven continues the ensemble exercise, while allowing for many delightful solos for his dancers. A folk aesthetic comes to the fore, the moves of grape crushing and harvest dances, and is earthy, rustic and invigorating. These broad strokes are contrasted with brushes of polite, courtly dance. The dancers are beaming: what joy, what radiance, what sweet mirth flows from the stage.
Morris often crafts dances which entice one towards a good old knees-up, and Mozart Dances is no exception. Imbued with Morris’ enchanting, Duncan-esque freedom, it can feel (as opposed to look) as if – for all Morris’ careful choreographic cartography and musicality – these dances came together spontaneously, through elated, instinctive improvisation. It almost goes without saying that in Mozart Dances Morris’ musicality – while lauded time and again – is sublime.