Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mark, Mozart, and mystery

The opening tableau, before a striking design by Howard Hodgkin.

Mozart Dances, the Mark Morris epic abstraction which finally got its Boston premiere last weekend at Celebrity Series, starts slow. Indeed, its entire opening "act," titled "Eleven," (after Piano Concerto 11 by you-know-who) opens with an intro from the men of the company, then settles into an intriguingly pensive set of variations for its women (with the commanding Lauren Grant serving as our guide, I think, to a series of anxious moods) - but never quite reaches the level of depth and complexity you expect of Morris at his best.

But it turns out he's just warming up. Mozart Dances blooms in "Double," its second act (set to the beloved double piano sonata, K. 448) which rivals Dido and Aeneas, L'Allegro, V, and the other best things Morris has ever done. There's been a sense for the last few years that Morris was past his great works, but how anyone could watch "Double" and still believe that is beyond me.

As is often the case with a Morris masterpiece, "Double" meditates on the psyche of both the individual and the group. It's (mostly) set on the company men, with Joe Bowie in a dark morning coat serving as a kind of host (or perhaps harbinger of doom). But its central "character" (and, we guess, an extension of Lauren Grant's persona from "Eleven") is Noah Vinson, who enters springing like a gazelle but soon crumples into a swoon in the mournful Andante. This sequence - which features a rippling, mutating ring of dancing men, one of Morris's most haunting conceits - is the core of Mozart Dances, and strikes an unusual note in the choreographer's oeuvre, in which "the group" is usually the happy salvation of the individual.

Here things are more complicated. Vinson seems to "die" not once, but twice (appropriately enough for a dance called "Double"), and when the women of the company return (to book-end the men's introduction), they seem to have wandered in from Balanchine (they're the girls from Serenade, or maybe La Valse), in ghostly gowns of tulle. I've never seen Morris so explicitly reference another choreographer before, and I felt that for once he'd gone meta (Balanchine was often quoted on the impossibility of choreographing to Mozart); still, this strange interpolation - somehow both light and sad - seemed to only enhance the mystery of the work.

The finale, "Twenty-seven," (after Piano Concerto No. . . well, you get the idea) is nearly as strong as "Double," and, in classic Morris fashion, pulls together patterns and motifs from the work's earlier sections into an elegant, if again somewhat enigmatic, synthesis (above). The emphasis here is generally on the couple, rather than the group, and the many symbolic gestures - generally expressions of frightened defiance or appeals to heaven - that dot "Eleven" and "Double" are this time interwoven with new motifs of acceptance (my favorite was a lovely little descending curlicue for one hand that read as a leaf slipping from a tree - like so much of Morris, it served as both musical and emotional expression).

But Mozart Dances doesn't end with either the triumph of L'Allegro and V, or the resigned transformation of Dido; it suggests some new emotional alignment for the sensibility (his own) that is always Mark's central theme, but it's so cross-cut with hope and melancholy that it's hard to perceive at first precisely where the choreographer has landed in terms of tone. Of course, perhaps that's the whole idea. Mozart famously has an aura of mystery, and this time, so does Mark. Then again, it always takes time, and several viewings, to fully appreciate a great Morris dance; something tells me this one may require more than the usual amount of attention.

And as a final note I must also add that, even given the high level of musical quality one expects from any Mark Morris Dance Company performance, Mozart Dances set a new standard. The wonderful Jane Glover - whom we last caught at Handel and Haydn last fall - conducted with ravishing delicacy in the pit, and even though I know it's stupid to pretend that any pianist can render a "definitive" account of Mozart, I'm nevertheless sorely tempted to claim that the great Russell Sherman and Minsoo Sohn did just that in their marvelous reading of the double piano concerto. This was an extraordinary evening of dance and music, and an extraordinary moment in the city's cultural life.

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