Mark Morris’ dance moves, years later, remain innovative

Women of Mark Morris ensemble perform striking dances to Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major” as a high point of Cal Performances season. Photo by Ken Friedman.

A couple of years ago I wrote that the Mark Morris troupe’s rendering of “L’Allegro” was “the most fantabulous modern dance performance I’ve seen. Ever.”

Having just watched the 16-person multi-cultural company prancing, twirling and executing multiple lifts to “Mozart Dances,” I can say that this show’s notthe most fantabulous ever.

But it is fascinating and innovative.

And it answers for me, in the affirmative, the question of whether something can still be avant-garde 13 years after its introduction.

It’s wonderful, in fact, how the production manages to perfectly integrate three distinctly different musical pieces with dancers wearing costumes that vary from flowing white dresses with white polka dots to a grayish waistcoat with cut-out armpits, and backdrops that feature huge paintbrush strokes that seem to resemble, in turn, dark hairpieces, birds with white soiled feathers, and three vivid red swatches of fabric.

The two-hour concert (including two intermissions) is captivating despite dating back to its debut at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan in 2006.

Although somewhat surprisingly, Morris’ choreography sometimes feels slightly jagged as it superimposes contemporary dance moves on ultra-classical melodies. With dancers strutting into the wings, repeatedly clasping their heads and hips, sliding to the floor and, after a bump, lying there for elongated pauses until they rise to move lithely in solos, couples and circles.

Morris, a 63-year-old Seattle-born choreographer, has said in a promotional video that he doesn’t want his dancers to merely “dance a thought balloon to the music” but prefers to have all of them to “take a step into Unknowing.”

He meets that goal, even if the audience is sometimes left perplexed as to a piece’s meaning.

In regard to the frequent graceful dives to the stage his troupe takes, Morris said he envisions the movements as if the dancers were “not very good” cliff divers in Acapulco who “hit a few places on the way into the water.”

It’s not pretty, he admits, but it achieves the “little bit awkward” effect he desires.

The first section of the concert, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, K.413,” is an animated female-oriented adventure with flimsy, see-through sensual but unsexy black costumes that display black bras and panties. Curly-haired Lauren Grant is a mesmerizing soloist.

Men of Mark Morris ensemble offer a fluid, graceful circle dance in Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major” at Zellerbach Hall. Photo by Ken Friedman.

The middle offering, the legendary composer’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K.448,” emphasizes the male contingent — bare-chested, barefooted and athletic.

The last segment, “Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K.595,” brings men and women together for a light-hearted exercise that makes me think of children romping in a playground.

Israeli-American pianist Inon Barnatan solos impressively on all three pieces, backed in the pit by the vibrant yet dulcet tones of the Berkeley Symphony (led by Colin Fowler who’s spotlighted throughout and who doubles on keyboard for the sonata).

“Mozart Dances” was originally performed at Zellerbach during the 2007-08 season. The ingenuity and humor of this reprise, though occasionally unfathomable, leads me to smile more than a few times (most broadly when one male dancer leaps onto the midsection of another and clings to him for what seems forever).

Please understand that I’m a bit biased: I’ve been a Morris fan since I first saw “The Hard Nut,” his cartoonish ballet spoof of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” decades ago in the same venue, Zellerbach Hall, home of Cal Performances’ eclectic undertakings.

Morris, who’s created 150 works for the troupe he founded in 1980, usually gets what he wants. After all, he is a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow who has created eight works for the San Francisco Ballet as well as a series of pieces for the American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet.

The night I went, the audience showed its appreciation by giving the dancers a standing ovation, then applauding even more vociferously when the formidable choreographer appeared onstage.

 Upcoming Cal Performances dance dates will include the Marinsky Ballet and Orchestra from Oct. 30 to Nov. 3; the Joffrey Ballet on March 6-8; and the satirical Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo on March 14 and 15. Information: www.calperfs.berkeley.edu/ or (510) 642-9988.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →