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Review 2, 8-14: Mr. Musicality
Mark Morris Makes Old Music New
By Douglas Frank
Copyright 2003 Douglas Frank
NEW YORK -- "The only
reason to dance is because of music," according to Mark Morris,
whose critics usually zero in on Morris's musicality. While his
fans love it, his detractors say it makes his dance just "music
visualization," or "paint by numbers." Does it really matter? Mark
Morris has a great gig going. On Thursday night at the New York
State Theater, Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival presented
the Mark Morris Dance Group performing interdisciplinary works with
the Dessoff Choirs, exceptional vocal soloists and fine instrumentalists.
Olde musicke -- in this case, from Franz Schubert, Antonio Vivaldi,
John Wilson, and Robert Schumann -- was the show's new star.
In college it was easy
to grab actors, dancers, singers, players (whomever) and trip to
sunny fields of yellow and green to explore and create new work
together. Morris captures and expresses such collegial spirit in
his work -- no small feat. Classical music today is challenged to
find new audiences. Producing interdisciplinary work is one answer
to that challenge. Artists and presenters alike know exactly how
challenging it is to do that in New York, with multiple unions,
boxed-in art forms, major funding, scheduling, performance and rehearsal
space limitations, injuries, and illness. Bravo to Jane Moss and
Lincoln Center for making it possible. Bravo to Morris and all the
artists and technicians for making music come alive through dance
with colorful costuming and lighting.
The first work was the
1992 "Bedtime," set to three songs by Franz Schubert (1797-1828):
Wiegenlied, Standchen, and Erlkonig. Mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson,
pianist Ilan Rechtman, and a chamber group of Dessoff men singing
music originally written for four-part women's voices delivered
the songs with heart. The ensemble singing was excellent and the
intonation was thrilling. The dancing onstage, with costumes by
James Ingalls and lighting by Susan Ruddie, was choreographed and
designed to blend seamlessly with the music. Eight dancers dressed
in blue and one each in gold, green, red, and pale lavender performed
sometimes-angular, sometimes-expansive movements. With elbows on
hips they spun swiftly with hands and forearms outstretched until
they all collapsed.
The second work, "Gloria"
(1981, revised 1984) was set to music of the same name name by Antonio
Vivaldi (1678-1741), AND sung by soprano Christine Brandes, Jepson
and the men and women of Dessoff, with the MMDG Music Ensemble under
the direction of Ransom Wilson. Lighting was by Michael Chybowski.
In the first movement,
Wilson threw a fast tempo for a male and a female dancer. The man
dropped to the floor and got a laugh from the audience as the lights
cued out. Two minutes of pure music continued with no dancing or
lighting; a nice surprise. In the second movement, "Et in terra
pax," dancers formed a diagonal line and wormed across the floor
on their bellies. Individual dancers rose up for solo variations,
and toward the end dragged others around on their backs, holding
their ankles. "Laudamus te" was a duet for two dancers, just as
the music is for two singers. In "Gratias," a dancer got another
laugh from the audience when he fluttered his hands in unison with
trills in the music. "Domine Deus," a solo for soprano Brandes,
also was a solo for a male dancer downstage. He moved to join two
dancers upstage to form a trio. One of the dancers held on to the
others as if she were disabled, limping and supporting herself with
her hands on the others' shoulders, finishing with a flourishing
solo. "Cum sancto spiritu" brought waves of dancers and elements
from all dance movements together with repeating variations. The
dancers even threw themselves across the floor on their chests;
all that was missing was the water slide and we might have been
watching Pilobolus and "Day Two." As the music built to its climax,
the dancers turned fast circles and fell to the floor individually,
finishing at rest. The soaring humanity of Vivaldi's great work,
its themes and its details were faithfully reflected in the choreography
and passionately danced.
The third work (following
intermission), "A Spell" from 1993, was set to four songs by John
Wilson (1595-1674): "Where the Bee Sucks [There Suck I]"; "Stay,
O Stay"0; "Do Not Fear to Put Thy Feet," and "Take, O Take Those
Lips Away." Lighting was by Chybowski and costumes by Ruddie. The
songs were performed by Jepson with sometimes unintelligible English
enunciation (hey, English can be harder to sing than German, and
the texts were provided) accompanied by an instrumental chamber
trio. A male dancer costumed as Cupid in red tunic with wings danced
a silly bee's dance to the first song. A woman then joined him in
a gray tunic along with a man in brown knickers, and in the third
song, on the words, "Come and rest thee on my Bosom," that's exactly
what the man did, evoking another laugh from the audience. Cupid
struck by kissing each lover more than once, and the final song's
pas de deux mirrored the melancholy sweetness of the text.
The program notes were
exceptionally complete, with more detail about the music than the
choreography -- they did not specify who danced the leads. The dancers
were Joe Bowie, Charlton Boyd, Rita Donahue, Marjorie Folkman, Shawn
Gannon, Lauren Grant, David Leventhal, Bradon McDonald, Amber Merkens,
Maile Okamura, Karen Reedy, Matthew Rose, Brynn Taylor, Julie Worden
and Michelle Yard.
Concluding the evening
was "V" (2001), to the Quintet in E-Flat Major for Piano and Strings,
Op. 44, by Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856), with its striking opening
tableau of dancers silhouetted against an electric-green wall, suddenly
blazing to light in their cobalt-blue costumes. "V" was previously
by Aimee Ts'ao.
Throughout the program,
tenacity was more present than technique, as a wide range of emotion
came through the dancing, although it seemed like the dancers were
more the accompaniment to the music instead of the other way around.
Many contemporary dance performances are performed almost exclusively
to recorded music today. That's a big difference from what we experienced
at the New York State Theater last Thursday. Live music at dance
performances is remarkable and powerful. Another big difference
may be that Morris's is an "outside-in" process, as opposed to the
inside-out process followed by Martha Graham and her descendants.
People regularly read a lot into dances by Morris. Dance critics
regularly employ their unique vocabulary to make something out of
anything. Morris doesn't describe his dances.
"It reminded me of school
when we ran around with scarves and danced for joy," a middle-aged
woman in the audience told me. "Yes, I enjoyed the performance.
Did I hear more music or see more dance? I guess both!" And that's
no small feat.
Douglas Frank has performed as a soloist and ensemble singer with
the Dessoff Choirs and is the executive and artistic director of
the Douglas Frank Chorale. For more information, please click
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