Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mark Morris Dance Group-Zellerbach Hall

The concept of the abstract has become an overused ‘buzz’ word in the performing arts and lost its essence. Abstraction has been turned into an inflated cliché for flippant academic circles and high-brow literary banter. The difficult questions are being ignored-what is abstraction; does it exist; can it be seen in performance? Instead, its existence is taken as a given, suggesting that a ‘Seinfeld’ approach can be applied to the creative process, resulting in movement that is about nothing. Maybe by striving to be about nothing, a piece’s identity evolves into being about the lack of narrative. Maybe it is impossible for a dance to develop solely out of motion and not provide anything else. Consequently, when a piece looks largely abstract in nature, it is important to delve deeper into the possible hidden sub-text and determine if there is more to it than meets the eye. Mark Morris Dance Group’s Mozart Dances first appears to be nonfigurative choreography to Mozart’s music; pure and simple. But, first impressions can be deceiving; there was definitely more going on. The piece may not have held a traditional story but it was not abstraction either. Instead, it was the embodiment of an intimate conversation between two artists, facilitating an homage to a third. This intersection provided a context for representation, thematics and topical imagery; it was clearly about something. Not every movement or sequence was steeped in meaning but, as a whole, the work allowed the audience to witness the unmistakable beauty of artistic collaboration.

By observing this dialogue, the audience became privy to Mark Morris’ rare understanding of the relationship between musical structure and movement. He was able to capture a strikingly accurate visual depiction of sonata-allegro form using his unique movement vocabulary. Sonata-allegro form is a tri-partite music composition structure utilized primarily during the eighteenth century, at the time that Mozart was composing. It consists of: 1) an exposition, where several musical motifs are introduced, 2) a development, where these motifs are explored and altered and 3) a recapitulation of the original themes, with an extended cadenza finish. Morris was able to give this musical structure life through movement by mirroring the three-part formula and exploring the movement material through recurrence. Like sonata-allegro form, there were three individual sections to his work: 1) eleven, which stated his primary themes, 2) double, where these ideas were examined and 3) twenty-seven, a cohesive summation of the material introduced. Through all three parts, the motifs recurred in tandem with recurrences in the music. Some of the more memorable returning choreography was: punctuated 1st position rélévés, staccato ballètés, 2nd position shuffles, and determinate marching, all coinciding with Mozart’s pulsating score. Mark Morris was able, in a way that few choreographers can match, to imagine and express what Mozart’s extraordinary music might look like.

There was a third ghostly presence in Mozart Dances, and that was the strong influence of George Balanchine manifested in costume and pattern. The costuming in all three segments was Balanchinian with Morris flair. Balanchine was one of the first choreographers to strip away the idea of traditional ballet costuming, both figuratively and literally. He put the dancers in practice clothes (simple leotards and tights) so as to correctly place the sole focus on dancing and movement, not peripheral elements, like costuming. Morris’ choice of costume was similarly minimalistic. The corps women wore a two piece leotard set, and the lead woman was in a plain white dress. The men wore solid dance tights and were either bare-chested (segment 1), or had plain grey tank shirts on (segment 2). Morris did add his own panache with a filmy tulle overdress for the women in the corps and a Dickens-style morning coat for the lead male dancer. It is unclear how Balanchine would feel about these ‘extras’, but they did give insight into Mark Morris’ personal character. These details perfectly illustrated his whimisical side, which continued all the way to the curtain call, where his bow was overshadowed by his bright green socks.

The choreographic patterns in Mozart Dances were the second apparition of Balanchine. So many choreographers focus all of their attention on the movements of the body and forget that the floor patterning of a piece can be just as powerful. Like Balanchine, Morris pays close attention to configurations, which was especially prevalent in the second movement of the piece, featuring the men. Morris choreographed them in circular patterns, holding hands or slightly detached, with their arms in 2nd position. This portion of the piece was lit from above, reflecting their shadows on the stage as they weaved, swayed, and turned. During these formations, the shadows on the floor looked like a kaleidoscope. It was mesmerizing. And, as in Balanchine’s work, the intoxicating element was the structure being executed by the dancers as they simply walked through a variety of patterns.

Clearly, there was more going on in Mozart Dances than abstraction. Critical rigor requires the in-depth examination of appearances. Taking something at face value could mean that its true purpose and beauty is missed. And, in Mark Morris Dance Group’s Mozart Dances, this magnificence was typified by a complicated mix of ideas and artistry from three genres: Mozart’s eighteenth-century classicism, Morris’ distinctive take on post-modernism and Balanchine’s historical legacy of neo-classicism.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Chris Black/POTRZEBIE Dance Project-Justin Herman Plaza Park

Generalization and categorization may not be popular in the performing arts, but in today’s modern dance scene, most choreographers fall into one of three camps: 1) the movement for movement’s sake abstractionists, 2) the narrative storytellers and 3) the hybrids who seek some marriage of form and content. The hybrids’ process is a bit of a mystery but one creative method they employ involves searching for inspiration and using it as a jumping off point for choreography. Common choices include class politics, social relationships, and feminism in the media. Unfortunately, because of their popularity, these issues have been analyzed to death in modern dance. Therefore, it is refreshing to see new works from modern choreographers that look outside of angsty subject-matter to other sources of insight, which also provide surprisingly deep and meaningful revelations. In Chris Black’s newest work, Pastime, she looked to baseball, and even though it may not fall into a socio-economic-political classification, it, too can teach when placed in the arena of the performing arts. Specifically, it demonstrates an ingenious use of the deconstructed narrative in modern dance while illustrating a brilliant juxtaposition of motion and stillness as well as highlighting the dark competitive side of humanity.

The idea of the ‘deconstructed narrative’ became a popular choreographic framework in the eighties and nineties as a response to the previous decades where content was conspicuously absent from much modern dance. With a deconstructed narrative, there is not a specific story or plotline. Instead, there is an idea, a concept, a topic that molds the work and provides a basis for choreographic invention and experimentation. Pastime had this; it was incredibly successful at unifying form and content as two interdependent variables. It was about baseball, but it was not a dance version of a nine-inning game from beginning to end. Rather, baseball was the foundation for exploration of movement. In the forty minute dance, there were gestural representations found specifically in baseball-pitching, batting, catching, sliding, and perhaps most interesting, the use of covert communicative coaching signals. But again, all of these movements were interspersed in the abstract expressionist choreography. They were not really telling a linear story; they were the inspiration and thus, illustrated a perfect example of the deconstructed narrative in modern dance.

Because of this unique fusion of baseball and movement, there were ample opportunities to witness a distinctive relationship between motion and stillness as is often apparent in a baseball game. Near the beginning of the piece, there was a section where the dancers toggled between moving around the field and a typical ‘resting’ baseball position, which in dance terms translated to standing in parallel 2nd, with hands placed on thighs. In this interchange, the audience could see how motion can erupt from a state of being still. Even when at rest, the next movement can be born within mind and body, sometimes explosively; sometimes calmly and sometimes purposely.

The presence of aggression in the piece was a bit of a surprise. Often baseball is tantamount to a sunny, happy, afternoon with family and ballpark snacks. Until playoff time, many fair-weather fans forget that it is a competitive sport where there are winners and losers. Contentiousness, anger and frustration are just as much a part of the game as are home runs and the amazing fly-ball catch. In the choreography, Black illustrated this hostility in several ways. It was seen between pitcher and batter characters as well as between team members. There was one sequence where two dancers played out a ‘duel’ scenario. They had a confrontation, and then backed away; but kept their eyes glued to each other. Dancers continued to move all around them, yet their gaze remained locked for what seemed like five minutes; the competitive tension was palpable.

Pastime was a great abstract expression of sport in dance. And, the dancers looked like baseball players. Because of all the rolling around in the natural park setting, by the end of the piece their costumes (‘baseball’ shirts) were covered in grass stains, just like real baseball players at the end of a game. Also, Erik Pearson’s brilliant score of baseball related music played on transistor radios further contextualized the piece into the baseball world. But, aside from these strikingly realistic visual and audio cues, the true achievement of Chris Black/POTRZEBIE Dance Project’s, Pastime, is the mixing of two unlikely ingredients and the surprising product that was created by this merger.