Mark Morris Dance Group, Zellerbach Auditorium, Berkeley, CA, October 30, 2004
For real estate agents, it’s “location, location,” and for chefs, it’s “presentation.” For Mark Morris, it’s become “instrumentation” and occasionally, “cariacaturization.”
Though the world premiere of Rock of Ages
is promoted as the hottie on the evening’s program, it will be V
that brings the house down, and rightly so. Opening before a absinthe green backdrop, eight dancers wearing blue smocks with midriff slits, crisscross each other on the diagonal, in what is the program’s most balletic choreography. Their gossamer lightness is the chariot for Morris’s shrinking dance vocabulary. Set to Schumann’s lush Quintet in E-Flat for Piano and Strings, Op. 44, the step sequence is Hannon-like, as it repeats: balancé en tournant
, ending in passé hop, run taken low and short, balancé en tournant
, ending in passé hop, left arm in high fifth, and there it goes again, like an amusement park ride on a loop-the-loop trajectory. A surprise: just when you’ve accepted the blue smocks into your life, another battalion of dancers enters, draped in celadon. Arms extend forward as the dancers advance downstage. Back they go in whirl-a-gig turns, heads inclined, a seascape of blue-green algae. They run as arms open, embrace a partner, draw back, and embrace again. Each embrace is a joyful reconnection to their partners and themselves. These little counter-intuitive flourishes save the work from turning in on itself. You’ll see Eleanora Dusa-like extended arms, or crawling beastie voyagés—really funny the first and second time, but …
Surprises appear that interrupt something that was really getting good, especially in this last piece, when the dancers have finally warmed up and found their flow. They’re giving great ensemble, which spotlights a solo or duet cut short by…another end run. It’s like when a kid concentrates hard on working something out, and is embarrassed when he unexpectedly senses his own vulnerability. He’ll pull a face or do a pratfall, to deprive us and him of the beauty that’s always present when a child concentrates. Is Mark Morris that
The same dancers stand out in every piece: June Omura is lithe and fully present, Lauren Grant, a long-time and reliably delightful MMDG dancer, consecrates whatever space she performs on, Marjorie Folkman is bewitching. Craig Biesecker and David Leventhal enrich the work with their deft, deliberate dancing.
In “Marble Halls,” (set to Bach’s Concerto for Oboe, Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo in C Minor, BWV 1060), platoons of dancers present themselves ranged in either vertical or horizontal lines. They wear Katherine McDowell’s eye-popping confections that recapitulate 1920s bathing attire—cut-off purple tights with red and goldenrod striped tank tops. They look to be kicking themselves in (or at least, toward) the head, again and again, interrupted by extensions in which knees are sometimes straight. There’s a sanguine tempi, where one line works while the other poses. It’s an intricate study and would be sturdier if the several dancers who don’t hold their balances, would. After all, the hosting score rests are so musically correct!
Morris introduces world-class musicians into the weave of his work. They bring their very best to it, and that gives us the right to expect the same level of technique from the dancers, but it often goes missing. Humor and music are signature embellishments of the company, and they add pizzazz, but only if the basics are in place. Without them, the music and humor feel like rebates for what’s missing from the dancing.
Lauren Grant is unassuming in this piece--just one of the guys. Then like some random, last burst of corn popping, she’s popped herself into the outstretched arms of a male dancer. Down she pops, and then, pop! up she goes, seated, facing the audience and then into the arms of one, then the other, of two equally-insouciant dancers. I flash on a postcard I saw once, of Mark Morris, his body painted by the artist, Keith Haring. This work brings to mind Keith Haring’s weirdly inclined little stick creatures, with Ms. Grant as their Lilliputian head of state. Rock of Ages
offers sentient men’s duets and quartets, with adagios that show the kindest and gentlest Mark Morris. Then out of the wings—comes another end run by two male dancers. Or are they stray players from the football game whose spectators had grabbed up all the available parking spaces in Berkeley earlier in the evening? There go our rising expectations! In this piece, steps that are usually done with straight legs are done with bent knees. Feet are neither pointed, nor flexed. By the end, you’re jonesin’ for a pointed foot, a full-out extension, or a dancer who looks happy to be cast in this work. Now that Jacques Derrida is gone, can’t we all begin re
constructing once again? A generous port de bras
is followed by a moment when three heads turn right, while one turns left. It’s the odd man out that make the piece interesting, like finding a Swiss chocolate almond in a spoonful of vanilla Hagen Dazs.
The curtain was held for those audience members who learned too late that parking had been hijacked for exclusive use by UCB football fans. When it finally opened on the evening’s first piece, I Don’t Want to Love
, some of us were possibly thinking, “I don’t want to live
—through another Saturday night caravan through Berkeley’s tangle of blocked-off streets, and $20 per “event” parking garages featuring no signs saying, “FULL,” where there are no attendants to open the gate when you don’t find a space.
In that context, perhaps Marble Halls
would have worked better to open the program. Some complain that the Zellerbach stage is too small for the works of major companies. In this case, it was too large
for the spare choreography that was dwarfed by singers and musicians of the American Bach Soloists, who accompanied the dancers with selections by Claudio Monteverdi.
The flouncy white Isaac Mizrahi-designed costumes ran the gamut from empire teddy-length nightgown to long prom dress, with matching men’s ensembles. They whited out the line of the dancers’ bodies, and so, flying ponytails, flapping shirt cuffs, and bobbing empire tulle are what the audience saw. The music, while sumptuous, was too rich to dance to, forcing Morris to set the choreography in a literal, one-step-per-note mode.
In the third movement, the architecture changed from playful, though technically unchallenging, to more sustained, reactive work that did fill the stage. There was a steadying moment when backs faced the audience like columns of marble. Then arms, clothes and hair flapped the dancers away.
Finally, there is a ritual of supplication, introducing a coherence tendered by raised arms, with hands pulling sustenance from above. Balances are quavery once again. When there are no sets to distract the eye, every quaking foot and fouetté-arabesque
dropped leg, seems to last a lifetime. Circling dancers carve out a space for a little solo. Dervish-like turns get the music and dancing talking to one another. The dancers, who all move like Terpsichore’s first-born, resolve their circles into up-and-down piston movements arrayed like differently-sized organ pipes. It is not a bad piece, after all. I decide that I’m better off here than at the football game.
<small>[ 03 November 2004, 09:23 AM: Message edited by: Toba Singer ]</small>