A Romp Through the Barn
Published: August 19, 2011
How many layers are there to human thought? Sometimes in art, just as in people’s conversations, we’re aware of only one at a time. On other occasions, though, we realize just how many layers can be in simultaneous action, and we’re given a sense of both revelation and mystery. When a choreographer responds to music — when one artist reacts in detail to another — the sensation of multilayering can affect us as an insight not just into dance but into the regions of the mind.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
From left, Maile Okamura, Spencer Ramirez, Aaron Loux and Rita Donahue of the Mark Morris Dance Group in “Festival Dance,” at the Rose Theater in Lincoln Center.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
William Smith III and fellow members of the Mark Morris Dance Group in “Renard.”
The triple bill by the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Rose Theater, presented on Thursday night as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, moves from simple to complex, and from plain entertainment to an astonishingly beautiful and intricate demonstration of genius. Mr. Morris’s latest work, “Renard,” is a good-humored, but nonetheless thoroughly flimsy, romp to Stravinsky’s score of that title. But in “Festival Dance” (2011), the evening’s second piece, he meets Hummel’s Piano Trio in E (Op. 83) with some of his most elaborate tapestries of dance motifs and stage geometries. The danciest piece on the program, this has a generous energy and charm that win it the loudest applause.
“Socrates” (2010), which closed the program, is a calm and objective work that has no special dance excitement and whips up no vehement audience reaction. Its beauty, however, is extraordinary. It’s possible to trace in it terms of arithmetic, geometry, dualism, epistemology and ontology, and it acts as a demonstration of art and as a reflection of life, philosophy and death.
Though Mr. Morris has choreographed a number of classics, he made three works between 1988 and 1993 that have stood as demonstrations of his capability for greatness: “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” “Dido and Aeneas” and “Grand Duo.” In the past 15 years he has made very few that should be considered classics. But “Socrates,” for all its hushed objectivity of manner, surely is on the same summit as “L’Allegro,” “Dido” and “Grand Duo.” Here the word genius truly is in order. Watching, we feel that our era is blessed to contain such a composition.
It’s too bad that “Renard,” for all its goofy fun, feels like only a thin first sketch of a cartoon. Stravinsky’s score is much more than that: a barnyard fable told as a cantata, with the voices chanting or uttering in a style that Stravinsky developed further in his better-known work “Les Noces.” It also features a 15-piece orchestra, including a cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer) providing a strange, often brittle, array of sonorities. It’s not a dance-friendly score, but Bronislava Nijinska (1922) and George Balanchine (1947) staged “Renard.” Stravinsky spoke of his admiration of Nijinska’s version in the book “Memories and Commentaries”: “Her acrobatic ‘Renard’ coincided with my ideas, as well as with the real — not realistic — décors.” He added: “Renard was also a real Russian satire. The animals saluted very like the Russian Army (Orwell would have liked this), and there was always an underlying significance to their movements.”
Mr. Morris’s animals are perkily individualized, but they amount to little. Best are the three perplexed hens, in skirts and heeled shoes, never doing the same staccato movements of head and shoulders at the same time. The few dance movements occur mostly on the peripheries of the main action and seem more coarsely shaped than is customary in Mr. Morris’s work.
The staging’s best features are the costumes by Maira Kalman, the children’s book illustrator and artist who worked with Mr. Morris in 2000 on his “Four Saints in Three Acts.” Her animals are dressed as humans, with a few animal details: individual tails, a headdress for the cock and large letters spelling out identities on each animal’s shirt (“FO” on the front, “X” on the back, and so on). Stefan Asbury conducts the MMDG Music Ensemble, with Matthew Anderson, Zachary Finkelstein, John Buffett and David Salsbery Fry singing.
When “Festival Dance” was new at the Mark Morris Dance Center in March, it was in a wide, shallow space very close to the audience. Now it is danced with a green-to-blue backdrop suggesting verdure merging into sky, and the six male-female couples must project into a space 20 times deeper. This is one of Mr. Morris’s most tightly woven compositions: it would take many viewings to analyze satisfactorily the repetitions and multiplications of its many motifs. At moments this emphasis on composition is irritating; a couple of the motifs are too preciously artful. Over all, though, the impetus of each of the three movements proves irresistible.
So does the sheer charm of the Morris dancers: in several cases their manner is so natural and relaxed that, even among some of the company’s newest members, you watch them as if they were your long-term friends. “Festival Dance” begins with a duet — by the time it has ended, we have seen half the work’s material — but, as so often with Mr. Morris, the happiest and most touching scenes are his large ensembles. You see human intimacy and dance liveliness absorbed into pattern, and in several scenes those patterns are, breathtakingly, in continual motion and alteration without loss of human individuality.
The invaluable Colin Fowler, central to Mr. Morris’s music for several years now, leads the Hummel trio stylishly from the piano; Georgy Valtchev plays violin; Paul Wiancko, cello. And Mr. Fowler returns in “Socrates” to play Satie’s cantata “Socrate,” which sets three passages from Plato, climaxing in the death of Socrates. Michael Kelly, a baritone, sings what is usually a tenor part with an affecting, Gallic-style vibrancy and lucid enunciation.
It’s from Satie’s score that Mr. Morris takes the objective, quiet tone of his choreography, and within what often sounds like a flat, nondance score he keeps revealing meters and patterns through dance terms. Almost invariably he has more than one group of dancers in action: from the opening scene, you can’t forget the small groups, each distinct in movement idiom from the last, which keep passing from right to left, while, from the closing scene, the contrasting groups of five play against one another compellingly, like the feeling of a Socratic dialectic.
The emphasis on the group serves to abstract but also expand aspects of the narrative and speech in Plato’s words, and the contrasts of patterns and styles keep developing an extraordinarily rich tension. As shapes, gestures and oppositions succeed one another, they build up to become a danced, poetic counterpart to the scientific scrutiny of sensations and ideas that was central to Socrates’ life. The Grecian costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are made from a ravishingly soft palette of individual colors. The juxtapositions of black and white in Michael Chybowski’s décor for the first and final scenes heighten the sense that “Socrates” is about more than one realm of existence.
mmdg.org. It is part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, which runs through next Saturday; (212) 721-6500, mostlymozart.org.