Mark Morris Dance Group, with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale
Performed Saturday, August 9, 2014
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center
New York, NY
As one of the truest stalwarts American concert dance, there’s not much Mark Morris can’t do, or perhaps at this point, hasn’t done. From directing operas around the world to unraveling the traditionalism of “The Nutcracker,” Morris’s canon of over 140 works makes him impossible to typify as a choreographer. But despite the structural, technical, or theatrical differences throughout his works, a common thread of unprecedented musicality endures. Morris is well-known in the dance world as a musical scholar, and his latest work, Acis and Galatea, once again reflects his ability to read through the musical lines and make the music and dance appear to resonate from one origin – the dancing body.
Presented as part of the 2014 Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center, Morris’s Acis and Galatea is a danced reimagining of George Frideric Handel’s pastoral opera that was generously re-orchestrated by Mozart in 1788. Whereas Handel’s original score called for only seven instruments, Mozart expanded the work to encompass a full orchestra and choir. History, then, has forced the opera to straddle the line between chamber work and musical spectacle, and Morris responds appropriately. Though the Koch Theater was filled with Mozart’s orchestrations, expertly provided by the 48-member Philharomonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, the stage is reserved for the four main vocalists and the Chorale’s visual counterpart, the sixteen members of the Mark Morris Dance Group.
Morris has experimented in the past with how to incorporate vocal performers into his operas, and the results have varied in effectiveness (perhaps most memorable is his danced portrayal of Dido/The Sorcerer in his Dido and Aeneas), but in this performance, the balance is, for the most part, well-struck. The choreography for the chorus of dancers is a pleasant reflection of the vocal chorus’s lines, particularly in such joyous moments as the introductory exclamation of “The Pleasure of the Plains” and Acis (Thomas Cooley) and Galatea’s (Yulia Van Doren) amorous “Happy We.” When the power of the vocal chorus decreases, Morris breaks the dancing group into duets and quartets. Often staying on stage only for a few steps before running capriciously to the wings, the dancers mimic the counter-melodic flourishes passed between the flutes, oboes, and clarinets.
This constant ebbing-and-flowing of movement across the stage makes the piece visually astounding. In groups of three and four, the dancers create diamonds, circles, and pinwheels, all while barreling from one end of the stage to the other. When the entire ensemble is on stage, it’s a bit like watching a synchronized swim team or a marching band (in a good way). The dancers move in and out of shapes and formations, running to replace each other just in time to keep the pattern from dissolving. Again, this is Morris paying attention to the differences in scale that originate in the score. Just as Mozart alternated between featuring individual parts and ensemble sound, Morris too recognizes that the audience can see the entire stage just as easily as it can follow a particular couple, and he invites the eye to zoom in and out to experience the dance from many different magnitudes.
Though the four main characters are portrayed by singers, their performance is far from passive. Morris gives them a significant amount of choreography, and the singers rise to the challenge admirably. Though the movement vocabulary for the vocalists tends to feel more like melodrama than modern dance – there’s plenty of the typical “acting the song” dramatic hand gesturing – it’s much preferable to some stationary alternative. (And besides, we wouldn’t have modern dance without melodrama, so maybe it’s all one in the same.)
Though the first act contains some of the best ensemble dances, the most enjoyable moments of the production come in the second act, with the introduction of the monster, Polyphemous. In a mottled lime green suit designed by Isaac Mizrahi, Douglas Williams isn’t a very frightening monster, but he does have the best role in the production. In Polyphemous, we get the most of Morris’s sly, sexy humor. His egregious hip-churning and spanking of passing dancers during his dusky baritone arias and oratorio make him a fiend of a different sort, and the comical responses of the dancers to these gestures keep things playful, not lewd.
Though the vocalists are the bearers of the plot, the dancers carry the show. Leaping wildly across the green-lit stage, sliding to the ground and immediately hopping up again, the dancers easily portray the jovial bouncing of the choral lines. The only downside is the choreography’s piece-wise structure: we only get small movement phrases at a time, and those are repeated so frequently throughout the piece that the dances in the second act aren’t much of a surprise. Though this structure isn’t without a purpose (it does help create connections between the orchestration of different sections of the music), it’s only in the very beginning and the very end that we get to see the MMDG in full force.
What I admire about Morris’s Acis and Galatea is it’s simultaneous qualities of chamber opera and theatrical spectacle. Though the story is told by four voices, it is the dancing that helps us understand the joy, the anguish, the fear, and the love felt within the work. The ending of the piece is the most touching: as a solitary Galatea retreats slowly upstage, the chorus of dancers assemble around her, creating an image of solidarity, strength, and love.
While Acis and Galatea isn’t as wild as some of Morris’s other operatic productions (I’m remembering in particular his staging of Four Saints in Three Acts, with an absurdist libretto by Gertrude Stein, at BAM in 2012), it fit well at the Koch Theater and made for an enjoyable performance. Hopefully it will be seen again.
By Katherine Bergstrom