Mark Morris Dance Group
by Carmel Morgan
January 31, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC
The Mark Morris Dance Group, which performs regularly in Fairfax, Virginia at George Mason University, appeared this year instead in Washington, DC, as part of the Kennedy Center’s “Modern Masters” series. Morris, one of the living masters of modern dance, has choreographed an intriguing work titled “Mozart Dances,” which his company expertly performed. Mozart’s music, conducted by Jane Glover, fits well with Morris’s luscious movement, like a fine wine with a gourmet meal. The gorgeous scenic design by Howard Hodgkin, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and lighting design by James F. Ingalls added further flavor to the meal. It was simply a feast.
Morris chose three Mozart pieces for his evening length work. The first section, “Eleven,” was danced to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 11 in F Major, K.413 (1782-83). Ursula Oppens played the piano in this opening section, accompanied by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. A white backdrop showed three large, dark blobs of paint, almost like oversized thumbprints, with visible brush strokes serving as the swirls. Bare-chested men spun and pushed their arms over their heads, reaching sideways. The women remained standing in a line behind the men. When they came into the light, we saw they wore outfits worthy of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue – black bras and panties covered by sheer grayish dresses that echoed the inky colors of the scenic design. Only petite powerhouse Lauren Grant’s costume was opaque – a sexy, solid black slip dress.
Grant danced with exquisite crispness. She introduced several movement themes that could be seen throughout “Mozart Dances.” Her elbows stuck out from behind her head, forming two narrow triangles. She bounced up and down on her toes, sometimes capturing the music. Her arms broke apart suddenly, as if awkwardly tearing open a set of curtains. Other females joined her, looking like Amazons in comparison. The lighting changed several times, ranging from red to blue to an orangey-pink. One dancer rested her hand on the side of her cheek. Was it a remnant of a slap or a comforting gesture? This movement repeated, along with others, making watching “Mozart Dances” like a game of Where’s Waldo. One eagerly watched to catch phrases one had seen (and heard) before.
The dancers performed the second section of the work, called “Double,” to Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, K.448 (1781), with Oppens joined by Amy Briggs on piano. Here, the men took the lead, as the women did before. The backdrop again featured swooshes of paint, but they were much lighter, like smudges of watercolor. Instead of Grant, Joe Bowie, wearing black shorts and a dark long-sleeved jacket, treated the audience to a solo. His feet playfully flitted about as the pianists fingers’ flew over the keys. Other men soon joined Bowie. They were clad in dark cropped pants and puffy-sleeved pale gray shirts, open in front. They extended their arms from their sides, giving a single flap, as if they might take off into flight. The men also placed their hands behind their heads, as the women did. They glided on and off from the wings in small groups, making half circles into the space, creating a feeling of continuity. The lighting went from yellow-gold to an Easter grass green to a warm orange.
In “Double,” the men danced delicately. They clasped hands in a huge circle. They twisted and trotted through junctions between each other’s linked arms. The circle moved across the stage, even as some dancers, hands still joined, were prone on the floor. Fascinating trios split from the mass. Dancers levitated, the men achieving incredible lightness. A man would pop up, a single foot behind him, as he was lifted and held at his wrists by two others. Another man, similarly supported, was pushed forward from behind like a swinging door.
Later, the women entered the stage in ankle-length pale gauzy skirts. They encircled the men. The work became livelier, and the brightness matched the music. Dancers skipped, walked in long strides that started with the heels, and ran. At the close of “Double,” the dancers’ heads dropped, their arms snug to their sides like tired toy soldiers. The applause was wild.
The final section of “Mozart Dances,” “Twenty-Seven,” was performed to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K.595 (1791) (played by Oppens). The entire company, all wearing white, covered the stage in two clumps. The backdrop this time included round red splashes of paint, in addition to black (the appearance of the red made the audience mutter “Oooooh!”). The dancers’ hands in this section were especially busy.
The dancers moved quickly to the floor. Their arms rose like plant stems, their hands slowly waving from side to side as if to push aside dirt. At times when dancers were flat on the floor, they jerked, just once, like a frog being shocked in a science lab. Among various groupings one dancer often lifted a single finger, as if to say, teasingly, “Wait a minute, I’ve forgotten something. I’ve actually got more to say.” Others fanned themselves, or seemingly usurped conducting duties as they slid their hands through the air. In fact, the dancers, like referees, used tons of mysterious hand gestures.
The color of the backdrop eventually bled to pink. The men and women then danced as couples. Women tumbled over the backs of men. Pairs of men and women made steeples, with one arm each reaching upward, as if their sides and underarms were held together with glue. Men lifted the women up high. The women bent over at the waist, flopped over like rag dolls. Momentum built as the music built, and the dancers quickly traveled from one side of the stage to the other. The men and women ended up in groups facing each other. Men reached toward the women, women grabbed at their own hearts.
“Mozart Dances” was, remarkably, very pretty all the way through. Despite its quirkiness, this work possessed the incredible beauty of the best of the classical ballets. While there was no discernable storyline, it wasn’t necessary to have a plot. Morris seems to aim to complement music he loves with dancing that enables the audience to experience the music viscerally. He successfully achieved this aim with “Mozart Dances.”