Mark Morris Dance Group
Mostly Mozart Festival: Sport, Empire Garden, V
New York, Rose Theater
10 July 2019
Funny or Die
If musicality is the quality most often ascribed to the choreographer Mark Morris, the runner-up must be wit. To which I would add a dogged, almost maniacal attention to musical structure. All three qualities were in evidence at his company’s recent appearance at the Mostly Mozart Festival, the opening night of a run that continues through July 13. The program includes one new work, Sport, set to Satie; Empire Garden, from 2009, with music by Charles Ives; and the very great work V, from 2001, a setting of Schumann’s piano quintet in E-flat major.
Each exemplifies one of Morris’s major modes: clever (Sport), mysterious (Empire Garden), and life-enhancing (V). The most popular, naturally, is the latter. How could it not be so? From the opening chords, you know you are in good hands, musically and choreographically. Also: humanly, if that’s a word. This is great music, uplifting to the soul, and, as always, beautifully played by Morris’s musical ensemble: Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney on violin, Daniel Avshalomov on viola, Wolfram Koessel on cello, and the mighty Colin Fowler (music director of the Mark Morris Dance Group) on piano.
On the four chords that introduce V, the dancers, clad in fluttering blue tunics, open, close, and open their arms, tilting their torsos side to side, a perfect metaphor: I embrace you, I release you. Each time the figure returns, so does the gesture. As do other musical reference points: a certain note pings on the piano, causing a circle of three dancers to burst apart, like a cell dividing. Then, in the slow movement that follows, a dirge, the dancers crawl, almost mechanically, across the stage, looking down at the floor, like lost souls or animals. That is, until the second theme, a creamy violin melody, enters (a moment of sweetness!) at which the dancers introduce a new motif. A man partners a woman, raising and lowering his free arm like a butterfly wing to reflect a two-note figure in the music. Then the dirge returns, and the dancers lower themselves to the floor; off they go, crawling around like beasts again. It’s all so perfectly constructed it makes you want to cry.
That ironclad structure shines through all the pieces on the program, particularly Empire Garden, which, for the life of me, I don’t understand. And yet, as you watch it you are aware of a serious choreographic brain at work. The Ives trio for violin, cello and piano (S. 86) is difficult music, not easy to parse. According to the program note, the first movement was inspired by a conversation with a philosophy professor at Yale and the whole piece abounds with Yalean themes. It has the gravity and lapidariness of philosophical discourse, I suppose. The dancers, wearing Elizabeth Kurtzman’s playful but unflattering costumes – colorful uniforms for a trippy marching band – move emphatically, jaggedly, waving their arms about in enigmatic semaphores. They’re trying to say something, but what? In the second movement, Ives overlaps various hearty hymns, a hornpipe, and a bit of jazz, as the dancers march around, or fall to the ground and roll with their mouths open in a terrifying scowl. As the musical layers multiply, so do the activities of the dancers. It’s all fairly unnerving, but you don’t know why exactly.
The new work, Sport, is much more straightforward, perhaps too much so, enjoyable though it is. Satie’s Sports et Divertissements, the piano suite to which it is set, is brilliant and daft, with little sections (some of them incredibly short) devoted to various pastimes: picnicking, tango, sailing, shooting. Morris indulges his goofy sense of humor and word-painting skills by creating a kind of pantomime. During “La Chasse” (the hunt), the dancers kneel and shoot in all directions, while rabbits and other fauna (dancers) crumple to the ground. The tango introduces a never-ending series of couples in formal, tango embrace, moving from right to left. Halfway through, the formality starts to dissolve and we see dancers dragging other dancers across the stage or crawling or hitting each other, or tangoing alone. Two dancers go sailing – the boat is made up of more dancers, who become the prow, the stern, the sail. My favorite was the fireworks section, with all the dancers ooh-ing and ah-ing. Morris creates a theme that weaves through, of dancers dragging other dancers on blankets: they become canoers paddling on a lake, or sledders, or dead bodies being dragged off into the wings.
As usual, Morris’s dancers are an appealing group. They have the ability to be both very normal-looking – they come in all sizes and shapes – but also incredibly precise, rhythmically acute, clear, and objective. They just do the steps. Laurel Lynch, always a standout, is even more so now, with her open chest, expansive port de bras, and strong legs. The strong and swift Domingo Estrada is also a joy to watch. But the company, especially now, is very much an ensemble, not a place for stars or showoffs. Every dancer has his or her moment. I wish, in general, for their sake, that the costumes flattered them more. Morris seems to take an almost perverse pleasure in shortening their legs with boxy, ill-fitting trousers. I think this stems from his democratizing impulses – it’s a way to counter the usual glorification of dancers’ bodies. I get it, but still, a little sartorial help wouldn’t hurt.
It’s a small complaint that speaks to Morris’s general refusal to please. He does what he pleases, and for the most part, that works just fine.