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Mark Morris at Mostly Mozart and elsewhere


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Reading dance reviews often makes me envious, but rarely moreso than when I read Nancy Dalva's review of Mark Morris's "L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato" performed at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center in August.

Here's the LINK

One of Dalva's phrases really impressed me -- because it described what I feel at many dance performances, but ALWAYS when I try to capture and hold onto the visual memory of something by Morris: ---- "[Y]ou wanted to open your eyes as wide as you could, and gaze into the dance."

I saw "L'allegro ... etc." several times quite a while ago and have picked up bits and pieces of Morris's work whenever possible. The last was a mixed bill of recent work -- Rock of Ages, All Fours, and Silhouettes, this spring. I adore The Hard Nut.

I've been fascinated at watching the way Morris works (in several documentaries, one with L'Allegro in Brussels, the other with another work at -- what? -- the National Ballet of Canada?) As each work ends, I've wanted to hold onto it, to see it again immediately. The only exception was Dido and Aenaes.

My problem is: I don't know WHY like his work so much. What do you like (or not like) about Morris's dances?

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Thanks for the link, kfw. Although long, the article is well worth reading. Jacobs loves Morris's early work, and Dido and Aeneas best of all. (So much for my own dislike of that.)

She is surprisingly critical of his more recent work, especially that done for other companies like SF Ballet. the qualities she liked in his early work -- happiness, humor, utopianism, uncanny use of simple gesture -- are missing, according to Jacobs, in the later work.

I very much appreciated her distinction between Balanchine's style and early Morris:

"Where Balanchine's musical refinement was answered with dancing of like refinement -- a classical technique of purring power and containment, cat-lick [like?] finish, and emotion sensitively pitched -- Morris's musical refinement served dancing that was blunt, earthy, purposely unpedigreed [, with] legs unstretched, feet floppy and slappy, the upper body not lifted but just pumped there, llike any office worker."

When I read that I could "see" both Balanchine and Morris -- understanding each a little better thanks to the wonderful use of contrast.

[Edited by Estelle to add a quote tag]

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We saw L'allegro et al a few years ago during the Mostly Mozart, and I remember enjoying it very much. We've seen the Morris company perform a few times, and it's odd. I find I can rarely remember exactly what choreography I saw that I enjoy in a Morris program (although the dancer portraying a dog "lifting its leg" remains a vivid exception). But I often come away feeling happy. I guess I would say there's something about what he puts out there on stage that feels very rooted in reality, warts and all. And his choreography melds beautifully to the music chosen. His respect for and understanding of classical music is impressive.

Beyond that, I have to admire his chutzpah in marketing his work. I've met more than just a few struggling modern choreographers who sneer at Morris, but the fact is he knows how to get people to buy what he's selling. There aren't too many "creatives" who can do that successfully.

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I haven't seen a whole lot of Morris, either, but What I get from him(and Taylor, but few other choreographers I see these days) is that he genuinely likes people. He his work is (usually) non-neurotic, affectionate and affirmative.

That, and his astute musicality.

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QUOTE:  ". . . legs unstretched, feet floppy and slappy, the upper body not lifted but just pumped there, llike any office worker.

Sounds perfectly awful, Bart. :unsure: But I know you have an eye, and Morris' work hardly lacks for critical acclaim, so I'm sure it's not. Can you explain why this appeals to you. I'm looking for an entry point here.

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I generally admire Morris's work, and his company. Now, iif the unstretched legs and floppy feet were descriptions of a ballet company, I'd be cross. But wiith modern dancers, I think it's a different aesthetic: relaxed legs and feet, a free use of the body, the illusion that they're office workers, but just try to do what they do :unsure:

My favorite Morris piece -- well, tied with L'Allegro -- is one from years and years ago, where the dancers was....a little, toy, robot truck, that learched its quavering, broken-hearted way across the stage, stopping, starting again, nearly breaking down, b ut gathering up its courage and pressing forward -- to a country and western singer's wail about how his woman done left him.

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QUOTE:   ". . . legs unstretched, feet floppy and slappy, the upper body not lifted but just pumped there, llike any office worker.

Sounds perfectly awful, Bart.

Reading this again, it DOES sound rather awful. I guess, thinking about l'Allegro (etc.) especially, you hardly notice the extremities. There's little concern for line. Hands, arms, legs and feet are often treated -- how can I say? -- informally, naturalistically. All of this quite unballetic. The upper body isn't really leaden (which is the impression given by "office worker"). The body is, however, almost always in contact with and connected to the earth, over which it skims, skips, spins, etc. Runners, as in Taylor, seem to lean into the ground rather than, as in ballet, attempting to escape from it.

I just looked up an essay by Arlene Croce (1984) in which she says of the young Morris's work: "No word or sound contaminates the freshness of their language, and dance language as we have known it -- old academic or antiacademic usage -- falls from their bodies. In its place are new sights, which we perceive with a thrill of recognition. The Mark Morris experience is like nothing else in dance but quite like a lot of things outside it -- especially in the streets and shops of lower Manhattan. I imagine that the younger you are, the more of these things you recognize."

I find a similar "freshness" in the Balanchine of Serenade, Western Symphony, Sanguinic (4 Ts), and so many others. Where Morris also reminds me of or Balanchine is in the we he moves groups of dancers around the stage. Entrances and exits are fast and often startling. Patterns appear when you least expect them. Lines form and bend, are crossed by individuals or other lines. Gestkures that we think will develop one way suddenly shift into something else. His choices in this regard feel natural and inevitable. And they express the music (the Handel of L'Allegro, etc., at least) rather than illustrating or merely mimicking it.

I hope, kfw, that others who know Morris's work better -- over the full range of his career -- will help both of us out here.

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Morris eschews overt virtuosity, and often by evening's end I miss it. In that regard, though, he may be a direct descendent of Isadora -- both emphasizing the appearance of naturalness in their dances. Except Isadora was pre-Judson. :blush:

[quoting Jacobs]

'Where Balanchine's musical refinement was answered with dancing of like refinement -- a classical technique of purring power and containment, cat-lick [like?] finish, and emotion sensitively pitched -- Morris's musical refinement served dancing that was blunt, earthy, purposely unpedigreed [, with] legs unstretched, feet floppy and slappy, the upper body not lifted but just pumped there, llike any office worker."

I think "cat-lick" works perfectly here, suggesting exquisite attention to the finest of details. I don't know why I get that from the term :unsure: , but I do. :D
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Humor, choreographic patterns and surprises, and close attention to detail. Thanks everyone, for whetting my appetite. I think I owe it to myself to give Morris a try the next time I get a chance.

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L'Allegro is one of my favorite pieces of any kind. There are several things I love about this piece which are characteristic of Morris' choreography, in addition to his fidelity to the spirit of the score, but the most important is his ability to convey what I can only describe as a life force: in his darker pieces, resilience and a will to rebuild with what is left, and in his lighter ones, energy and joy of movement, without a hint of naivite or coyness.

When given a chance and a budget, he also uses costumes and sets as an integral part of the dance. Like the theatrical conceit that Robbins uses so effectively in the Theme Couple in Goldberg Variations -- the dancers in stark practice clothes walking through the lines of dancers in stylized period costumes to join at center stage as the body of dancers retreats into the wings -- he uses costumes, in this case color, to lift the Novembery spirit of the first part into the spring of the second. Despite the autumnal colors though, the costumes in the first half are the same, flowing design, and even if Persephone is in the underworld for six months, the picture is not entirely bleak.

There are three dances in particular to which I look forward in each performance. "The Stupid Men's Dance" has to be one of the goofiest portrayals of young men feeling their oats after a long winter of captivity. "Basilica," is a piece in which the dancers walk onto the stage and examine the back wall made of large, column-like panels, and they are seeing a huge, holy, unknown place for the first time. The last is "The Walking Duet," a double line dance in which the simplicity of individual movement is used to create patterns of such great invention, that it was in the first 10 seconds of this dance that, having loved Morris' work for years, I fell in love with his work. If he had choreographed nothing else, it would have been enough.

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I think one of the secrets of Morris's ability to reach so deep into us -- I agree with all of you, his dances can really move me, like nobody else's but Balanchine's and Ashton's -- is his very deep grounding in folk dance -- as a teenager he belonged to a balkan folk dance collective in Seattle, and his first great love was flamenco.

It's a foundation for his stage work -- and it gives him access to rhythms and floor patterns, the old dance forms that underlie so much great music (all of Handel and Bach is based on dance rhythms, jig, courante minuet sarabande pavane ecossaise etc.), and the figures of folk-dance -- circles, lines, stars, squares, thread the needle (where two dancers make an arch and another tgoes under it, or leads a line of dancers under it, a favorite of Balanchine's, e.g., COncerto Barocco).... and it gives the fundamental look of his dancers, who don't look to me like office workers but people who move well dancing together, like folk-dancers....

And lots of the sections we all like so much ARE folk-dances -- the "stupid men's dance" actually is a real bavarian folk dance, and the double line dance Helene mentioned, which always makes me cry, it's so beautiful to see all these reasonable designs taking shape, with all its fantastic stage patterning, is a Balkan line dance.....

And then there's that thing Alexandra alluded to -- he can make a toy truck dance. What an imagination!

A curious thing you wouldn't know if you hadn't read an interview or something is how intellectual he can be -- l'Allegro, he's said, was designed to CONFINE the dancers -- all those beautiful scrims that fly in and out are part of a project of restricting hte space in which the dancers can move, in various dimensions..... my favorite of the effects he created was the slow walking dance, where it looked like we were looking at shades in Elysium pacing slowly, looking down sadly, line upon line receding into the mists, where they were separated by colorless scrims and had to walk like on a cat-walk, to a penseroso section early in the ballet.....

The bio of him by Joan Acocella is VERY VERY good -- readable, penetrating, illuminating. I don't always agree with her interpraetations, but I sure find them stimulating, and she's almost never WRONG, she's really seen the dances. She notices things I don't, but they ARE there.

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Just so things aren't unanimous :unsure: and since I doubt I will detract from the praise I'll be the contrarian here and say Morris has always left me cold. I find the vocabulary too thin and his humor juvenile, even a bit nasty. I admired the craft in L'Allegro a great deal but I left the theater unmoved. Which just goes to show that not everyone can like everything, and probably nothing can be universally liked, except Sara Lee!

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Which just goes to show that not everyone can like everything, and probably nothing can be universally liked, except Sara Lee!

It pains me to disagree, Leigh, but Sara Lee hasn't been the same since they stopped making those brownies that could knock you right out.

And you know I'm one of those people who loves Morris' work, but there it is.

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I think one of the secrets of Morris's ability to reach so deep into us -- I agree with all of you, his dances can really move me, like nobody else's but Balanchine's and Ashton's -- is his very deep grounding in folk dance -- as a teenager he belonged to a balkan folk dance collective in Seattle, and his first great love was flamenco.

It's a foundation for his stage work -- and it gives him access to rhythms and floor patterns, the old dance forms that underlie so much great music (all of Handel and Bach is based on dance rhythms, jig, courante minuet sarabande pavane ecossaise etc.), and the figures of folk-dance -- circles, lines, stars, squares,  thread the needle (where two dancers make an arch and another tgoes under it, or leads a line of dancers under it, a favorite of Balanchine's, e.g., COncerto Barocco).... and it gives the fundamental look of his dancers, who don't look to me like office workers but people who move well dancing together, like folk-dancers....

And lots of the sections we all like so much ARE folk-dances

Thanks, Paul. This was really very helpful. Sometimes you see something and can't quite figure out the impession it makes. Then someone opens the door so tha you see things differently from then on. You've done that for me RE Morris's patterns and use of the floor.

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I saw "L'Allegro...." at the Harris Theater in Chicago last weekend. I adored it. So much modern dance seems caught up in pretentious interpretation of a theme (usually involving love, loss, sex, abuse, or other relational stuff). Not this! I loved the purity of the musical expression. The rhythms, the repeats, the intonations -- all were caught through movement. The dance made you hear the music differently. It made you see the music.

And then, just when you were lulled into thinking it was pure expression -- Bam, he hits you with a literal movement, or even a cliché (e.g. the bird, the hunt). It keeps you on your toes. Or maybe it's just comic relief.

The costumes are wonderful, especially the simple drape and flow of the dresses.

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