Performing Arts: Dance
July 24, 2019
At some point, people started making music for dancing. This relationship was heightened in courts and temples into classical and sacred traditions. A perceived precedent of dance as dependent on music was subsequently reconsidered by John Cage’s disciples embracing silence and chance. Before, during, and after that, choreographers forged a third avenue, dynamically grappling with extant pieces rather than waiting to be composed for. Mark Morris is one. While his program for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival features no dances to the festival’s namesake, the collection demonstrates a similar brilliance, clarity, and prodigiousness in tackling a motley crew of composers.

V is a physical sonata, following the form of Robert Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op. 44. Danced motifs signal musical ones via spatially shifting, repeated movements, just as intervallic patterns sequence at different pitches into tunes. Costuming visualizes structure. Blue dancers take the exposition, and white dances the oft transposed repeat. Lines of dancers overlap in a way that repositions cabooses as fronts of new trains, mirroring the common tone-based modulations of experimental romantics. Colors mingle as themes intertwine in development, most satisfyingly when the Morris’s tilted grasps are mirrored into voracious hugs.

Similarly utilizing costuming, Empire Garden vividly dresses dancers a la Sergeant Pepper, that the eye may assist the ear in processing Charles Ives’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, S. 86. Groupings of bodies reflect the piece’s polytonal layers of popular music quotations. The largely cold formality of the choreography, however, keeps Ives’s wit well above our heads.

Morris’s latest, Sport, delivers Erik Satie’s humor with uncanny directness, thanks to the text and illustrations built into the manuscript. After 21 scenes, anyone with an understanding of classical music as unilaterally stuffy is proven otherwise. Each piece is paired with living tableaus of horses, canoeists, blindfolded hide and seek, and matches of tennis and golf, cartoonishly extending beyond the proscenium’s frame.

Bodies represent individuals and parts of larger organisms, such as an octopus comprised of grounded shoulders buttressing spines under centrally raised legs. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costuming is integral; form-fitting, colorful suits are legible as uniforms or skins. Fabric is additionally multi-purposeful from boats to a death shroud. Modular physicality defines the ground as grass, or the air as water. Rolling with Satie’s jokes, Morris occasionally has his dancers vocalize, though it fails to be as wholesomely articulated.

Choreographers in this third avenue of musical relationship still fall into traps of musical dependence. Morris avoids them by constantly shifting his analogs. Bodies can be instruments, harmonic components, or sensibilities. Spacing can parallel time or structure. He freely uses the space between movements, particularly with Satie, to dissolve and reform scenarios into more intentional scoring. In doing so, dance remains autonomous as music is revealed on its own terms.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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