Review: Mark Morris Dance Group, Mozart Dances (Real and televised versions!)
There is an interesting passage from Apollinaire Scherr’s Newsday preview of Mark Morris Dance Company’s Live From Lincoln Center presentation of Mozart Dances last Thursday:
“Morris was concerned that the transitions to the musicians not make the dancers seem like “figments of the musicians’ imagination,” he says. “In showing a closeup of orchestra players followed by a shot of dancers, it can seem that the music is forcing the dance to happen. That is not the case.” Browning decided to linger on the dancers before zooming in on the orchestra pit when the same musical theme repeats. If any causal relationship is implied, it’s that the music emanates from the dancers, not the other way around.”
I think this brings us to the axle at the center of the defense of Mark Morris’ dance.
Morris’ dance is known for its perceived “literalness” in its relationship with the music that he uses. His three main achievements seem to be this, his use of Baroque and Classical non-dance music in the service of dance, and insisting upon a classically-derived language of thematic development to compose his dances.
Incidentally, the first time I saw Morris’ work was back in the early (or mid) nineties–on television. I was at home watching TV (too much TV, but here was a moment that didn’t go to waste) and I came upon a series called Bravo Profiles on Bravo (sadly, I don’t think the series exists any longer). And there on the television, a sly, curly-maned queen was explaining why he made the kind of dances he did. The interview was cut in with excerpts from some of his work. I vaguely recall him saying something like it’s about enjoying the beauty of the music; it seemed a lot tied in with feeling the music. I was inspired, I think, but also remember thinking that he didn’t look like a dancer. (If that doesn’t tell you everything about your common suburban teenager’s expectations of a dancer’s body, I don’t know what does.)
At any rate, this cloud still looms around Morris and people who criticize his work. Alastair Macaulay’s review in the The New York Times didn’t so much object to the literal quality of Morris’ style, but rather that the movements Morris chose to go with the music were unexpected and illogical. But others in the dance world seem to object more to either the his use of “steps” (a formal device that some new dancemakers eschew at all costs), or with the way the dance is tied inextricably to the rhythmic infrastructure of the music. The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella questions whether the interior intentions behind Morris’ work always come across; without the aid of explanation.
But the suggestion in Scherr’s article that Morris (and company) believe that it should appear on TV that the dance causes the music is telling. How should it be that a dance that so obviously is bound to the music, and created after the music, would appear to us as though the music was written after the dance?
The Unruly Shadow
As I was watching from the Sate Theater, Saturday evening, I was having a difficult time putting my finger on exactly what I was seeing, even though I have seen, and enjoyed, the MMDG several times before. But it soon became clear that aesthetically, the movement has an independence from the music that betrays the apparent synchronicity. Because when we speak of Morris’ literalness, we must agree that first and foremost, it is a rhythmic literalness. When a melody soars high, or a bass figure drops, we don’t see dancers suddenly rising and falling in Morris’ work (although there are occasional suggestions). What we do see is a circle of male dancers suddenly squat and jut their left hand across their body when there is an unexpected sforzando near a cadence. Or, we see a dancer run and slide onto her side, and once she hits the floor, her body at full stretch, and we would expect her body to stop, she pulses forward one more time with her upper body to an echoed beat in the music; a subtle gesture but one that tells us Morris’ understanding of the score is acute and nuanced.
The best analogy I could come up with is the idea of Peter Pan’s shadow. I must emphasize that I’m making no correlation between the character of Peter Pan and Mark Morris (although others may try). What I’m concerned with is the property of Peter Pan’s shadow that allows it to detach from the body: its source. Imagine, if you will indulge me, that the shadow, as it’s usually depicted in film, is a buoyant sheet that flutters around, whips about, stretches and curls up–it looks like and behaves like Peter Pan, but it has a defiant life of its own. Imagine then, also, what it would look like if Wendy haphazardly sewed the shadow back onto Peter’s body, but only at certain points, just enough to secure it, but not well enough to keep every point of the shadow connected to every point of Peter’s profile.
This is the best imagery I can come up with to illustrate how I believe Mark Morris’ choreography relates to the music (apologies if it’s a bit fanciful).
The choreography depends on the music, but only through a series of rhythmic joints. The rest is up for grabs. That’s why a “motif” of women running onto stage in a line–to the beat of the music–can later develop into an arrhythmic burst of running dancers over the same music (or a developed repeat), and a moment like this becomes funny because we’ve been tracking that relationship with the musical motives.
In this way, Morris stays with the music, but only when he wants to. By doing so, he does imply a heirarchy; that the dance is the priority, and the music is a beautiful, if occasionally expendable, means. So it would then make sense for Morris to want people to believe that the more-important dance is generating the less-important music. This also agrees with Alastair Macaulay’s criticism of how Morris uses three separate Mozart pieces (two piano concertos and a sonata for two pianos)–all autonomous works that have little to do with each other other than that were all composed by the same genius–as the vehicle for one work of dance. Macaulay writes, “As you see some of these motifs recur from one work to another, however, you start to feel a puzzling and fixed structure of connecting suggestion imposed upon the separate scores.” Macaulay finds this distracting when a “motif” from an early section returns in the later sections, now to an entirely different score of music. He’s right to criticize this, but what he fails to articulate why Morris shouldn’t be doing this; he takes it for granted.
I, on the other hand, don’t think Morris shouldn’t be doing this. I think this is what distinguishes Morris’ work from the ballet and aligns him with a contemporary way of treating music in a post-Merce/Cage dance environment. Morris declares an indulgently artistic contradiction: I will dance to the music, but only in so far as it furthers the dance. One might argue, is this any different than what most dances end up becoming? I would argue, yes, it is different.
Morris’ particular, and uncanny, genius for thematic development is unrivaled, although, I’m not sure that any other choreographer is intentionally entering into a rivalry with Mark Morris on this front. No choreographer that I have seen has exhibited a similar penchant for thematic development that is visually abstract and yet also bound to the music’s own inevitable narrative.
Real Fish, Live Fish
Live, and by that I mean, in person, Mozart Dances is a wonderful work. It’s tame enough for the Lincoln Center crowd, and yet resonates with the essence of contemporary genius, which is really what your dealing with when you see any of Morris’ work, which is the same to say that even bad Mozart is still ingenious in its way; and so with Morris. Whether its the noted reversal in our gender expectations or the homoerotic narratives that emerge (particularly hilarious was a moment when Joe Bowie and Noah Vinson, seemingly playing the mentor and the student (or, the Daddy and the Twink), were kept from reaching each other by a ring of circling women). These kinds of theatrical moments are intentionally complicated by the threading thematic development, which has its own course. Anything obviously narrative is like an incidental stopping point along the way.
On television, however, the effects, almost unanimously in the blogosphere, were mixed.
Watching something on television is quite a different experience, with its own sets of values and functions. What does it mean to watch a live dance performance on television while entertaining friends, pulling one’s attention to pour a glass of champagne, to tell a friend how awful that Manhunt hookup was, to jump up from your seat to go to the bathroom? As the social connectivity grew heartier, the dance held less and less weight, and we eventually began channel-surfing, and lo and behold, we came across the final episode of “So You Think You Can Dance,” and there we found an ensemble dance of “lyric jazz” (I was told) that was filmed using much hipper techniques than Lincoln Center would ever entertain adopting. And it was absorbing, even for the thirty seconds we caught.
I don’t hold anything against the live broadcast. If you can pump any of the arts into the living rooms of culture-starved American homes, that is an achievement unto itself. Maybe there’s another sixteen-year-old closeted artist-in-the-making who will hold onto that broadcast as a seed that will one day compell him to create a life and artistry that his present situation might not otherwise allow him to imagine. For those that are deeply drawn to the arts, the quality of the broadcast will have little affect on their absorption in the programming. Being concerned about how the broadcast is received is mainly to be concerned with attracting people to the art who might not otherwise be naturally inclined to stop and watch it; or, new audiences.
At Lincoln Center, I was lucky enough to be seated next to a couple [Lydia (rhymes with Medea) and...I can't remember the guy's name...Steve or Jim or something pretty straight forward] who had never seen Mark Morris before, and who until that night, had little interest in or foreknowledge of, contemporary dance. Wow, these were the illusive “new audience” that all of the big arts are freaking out about! During the intermission, Lydia took the risk to ask me why I was taking notes. I explained to her about the website. The two asked me what I thought, and I told them what I could. Then, eager to know about Mark Morris and his work, they asked me, essentially, what’s he known for?
I did my best to explain about dancing to the music and using classical music. I also mentioned that Morris is known for his challenging of gender roles in dance (and yes, Ms. Plank, we are still concerned with those!), and the gentleman said, “I noticed that the women’s bodies were bigger. Is that intentional?” I was happy to see that they noticed things like this. We (in the arts nebula) can get so caught up in what we think, that we fail to check and see if this is how lay-people experience art. As it turns out, they can. They just need a little assistance putting things in context. And they seem happy, even proactive (once they’re in the theater) about wanting to know about what they’re experiencing.
This was a good sign for sure.
It turns out coming to the Mark Morris was the guy’s idea. When I asked him why he had chosen it, the reason was as simple as, “I wanted to come to one of the Mozart things.” And this is the root of the crisis between the formal rhetoric that classical arts (including contemporary genres) enforce upon our culture, and the sincere (if clumsy) casualness of our culture. Selling opulence and mystifying treatises about light boxes and computer programs isn’t doing anything to help the cause of these arts. If the creators behind the Mostly Mozart Festival (and all of the fine arts) can accept that their work is perceived by the general public as something so unintentionally iconoclastic as a “Mozart thing,” than there may be hope yet to fill all those seats for generations to come.