My friend and colleague John Rockwell, the chief dance critic of the New York Times, has published a column called “Has Mark Morris Made Only One Masterpiece?” which is so wrong-headed that I felt I had to say something about it at once.
Here’s part of what John wrote:
Mark Morris is rightly regarded as the finest modern-dance choreographer of his generation, and his “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” a richly varied, deeply moving evening-length setting of Handel’s oratorio to Milton’s text, is widely believed to be his masterpiece.
But if “L’Allegro,” which was created in Brussels in 1988 and concluded its fifth New York run since 1990 at the New York State Theater on Saturday, is Mr. Morris’s masterpiece, what’s he done since? Should we, as dance lovers and Morris admirers, be concerned that a choreographer still in his prime–he’s just shy of 49–and celebrating the 25th anniversary of his company has not produced a comparable triumph in the last 18 years? And if not, why not?…
Size and success are not synonymous. Scattered through the shorter dances that make up the typical mixed-repertory programs of the Mark Morris Dance Group are innumerable gems. But grandeur of scale does make an impact; it stretches out the canvas to allow more room for the rich emotional range and teeming variety of detail that enliven “L’Allegro.”
(Read the whole thing here.)
Fudge the point though he does, John is not so implicitly arguing that size and success are synonymous, or something close to it. He remarks in passing, for instance, that “Mr. Morris has delivered eminently serious work in recent years. Like ‘V,’ set in 2001 to Schumann’s E-flat Piano Quintet.” Yet that unforgettably compelling one-act dance, together with many other post-L’Allegro works of comparable weight and significance that John neglected to mention, is apparently as nothing when placed next to the full-evening L’Allegro, which to John’s way of thinking is Morris’ sole and only “masterpiece.”
How shall I start dismantling this argument-by-assertion? With the most appropriate possible comparison. Mark Morris is about to turn forty-nine. How many full-evening dances had the greatest of all choreographers, George Balanchine, made by the time he was forty-nine? Er, one. He made The Nutcracker in 1954, shortly before his fiftieth birthday, and while it is an indisputably great and miraculous ballet, I don’t know anybody over the age of ten who’d be likely to call it his masterpiece. Too bad poor Mr. B piddled away the remainder of his first five decades on such comparatively minor jobs of work as Apollo, Prodigal Son, Serenade, Concerto Barocco, Ballet Imperial, Symphony in C, Orpheus, The Four Temperaments….
You see my point, of course. Yes, L’Allegro is a masterpiece, probably Morris’ greatest achievement to date, and its scope is part and parcel of its greatness. To quote what I myself have written about it, L’Allegro is “a whole world of dance in a single evening, everything from childlike pantomime to knockabout comedy to complex groupings reminiscent of George Balanchine in their control and clarity.” This all-encompassing generosity of inspiration is one of the reasons why we respond to it so powerfully. But it’s not great because it’s long, nor are long works of art necessarily greater than short ones. In my opinion, the greatest ballet of the twentieth century–perhaps the greatest ever made–is Balanchine’s half-hour-long Four Temperaments, which contains whole universes of thought and emotion. Jerome Robbins never made a single full-evening dance. Merce Cunningham has made only one, Ocean, and it’s no masterpiece. To date Paul Taylor has made two, neither of which has remained in his company’s repertory. And as for Morris, I can think of any number of his post-1988 dances which I and many other critics and dance lovers believe to be as good as L’Allegro, even if they’re not as long. Dido and Aeneas, Love Song Waltzes, Grand Duo, Rhymes With Silver, The Office, The Argument, V: that’s what Mark Morris has “done since,” just for starters. So unless you define “masterpiece” as “a person’s single greatest achievement,” which John is obviously not doing in this context, then what he’s written makes no sense at all.
Could it be that John has confused greatness with ambition? Or was he simply spinning out a big idea in haste and without sufficient forethought, as journalists, myself included, have been known to do on occasion when a deadline beckons? Beats me. But I wish he’d left this particular idea in the oven to bake a little longer before he served it forth in the New York Times.