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SUMMER SESSION


Mark Morris Dance Group, Mostly Mozart Festival / New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, NYC / August 4-6, 2003


Adding dance to Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival for the second year in a row, the Mark Morris Dance Group performed four works from its repertory—nothing new, but most of it pretty damned wonderful.


Of the two chamber-scaled pieces presented, the 1992 “Bedtime,” set to Schubert songs, can’t possibly be called minor. Its first section, a lullaby, is so simple in its material, so understated in its means, and so poignant in its effect, it alone might serve as proof of Morris’s genius. A tall elegant woman in golden pajamas—call her the goddess of sleep—keeps vigil over three quiet recumbent bodies at the front edge of the stage, soothing their repose, you assume, perhaps animating their good dreams. Eventually, from the twilight recesses of the space, she draws another three figures, one to watch over each of the sleepers, to serve in her place as their caretakers and companions. That’s it. The message? The one a mother implicitly sends to her child: I cannot always be here to take care of you, but I promise you that someone always will. This lie—the mother’s need to tell it, the child’s need to hear it—and the fact that it can be rendered through dancing and music as the universal wish it represents, make you cry.


When Morris himself danced Cupid, enabling a rural swain and his lass, in the 1993 “A Spell,” I thought the piece (set to songs by the Renaissance madrigalist John Wilson) a mere bagatelle. Now that the role has been handed on and its outrageous archness—there goes Mark again!—toned down, I see that far more is happening here. After the period of romance and lust, flirting and fucking in the country lanes frequented by Shakespearean peasantry, the lovers become entirely postmodern—us, in fact. And the woman, tragically, wants far more than her baffled partner can offer, more than she can, herself, put a name to. Long before the dance ends, Cupid has vanished.


Created in 1981 and revised in 1984, “Gloria” (named for its Vivaldi score) was—and remains—a major triumph. Morris reveals in it a key aspect of his character—profound empathy with the human condition. We are, by virtue of being human, maimed and doomed, he suggests to us. And, he goes on, we are, also by virtue of being human, capable of salvation—or, more simply, unreasoning aspiration, hope, and joy. “Gloria”’s ten dancers stagger, fall, and continue relentlessly in their path, crawling awkwardly and painfully, in a jagged rhythm. Elsewhere they run and leap exultantly, as if miraculously restored, by stubborn devotion, to the fluency of physical and spiritual well-being. The choreography operates by responding to the structures in the music with action that can be described in simple, concrete terms. It dictates no emotion. Yet it elicits deep feeling from the spectator because of Morris’s great gift for knowing, about movement and gesture, what, how much, and when.


“V” (to Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Strings), was clearly the “big” work on the program—the spectacular item in terms of scale and punch, meant to assure the general audience it was getting its money’s worth. Ever since its premiere in 2001, though, I’ve felt that I’m in a minority of one among Morris’s admirers. Well, two, the other being my companion at the theater last night. Most Morris enthusiasts claim that “V” equals—even tops—his masterworks of the previous two decades. Not to my eyes.


After some four viewings, I’m more convinced than ever that “V” doesn’t earn the ecstasy it lays claim to. All those Amazonian leaps, arms flung skyward. All those onslaughts in V-shaped phalanxes. All those pairings off into full body hugs (“Oh, God, I’m so glad to see you. I was sure you were dead.” The dance was “Dedicated to the City of New York” in the wake of 9/11). “V” panders to its audience with scads of meet-and-greet stuff, the dancers advancing straight-on, practically into the public’s lap, arms open wide in a proffered embrace. Worse still, the piece has only two modes—grim and elated; it ticks as unremittingly as a metronome between them. The varied emotional texture of “Gloria,” with which it shares its themes, puts it to shame. What’s more, as Morris’s detractors claim—unjustifiably, I think, about everything he does—the choreography seems to be little more than music visualization. Each time I see “V,” it seems more specious.


“Ah, but—“ interjects my companion, who was equally unimpressed by the choreography. “But what?” I challenge. “The dancers.” There she has me. About these glorious creatures—each unique—I have no reservations. More about them, I hope, another time.


© 2003 Tobi Tobias

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