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.

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