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Flash 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 reviewed here 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 here.

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