Schumann’s Quintet in E flat for Piano and Strings is one of the sublime moments in Romantic music. That Mark Morris should love it can come as no surprise, and hearing it so beautifully played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music during the recent Morris season only confirmed what glorious music it is, with its combination of grandeur and introspection, of lyricism and heightened emotion. But is it dance music? Or, rather, has Mr. Morris succeeded, in his new work V , in giving us a dance equivalent of its greatness? For me, despite the endless felicities of his invention and the magic of his dancers, the answer, alas, is no. At the performances I attended, I found myself charmed, seduced, absorbed, but never moved. V fits the music, certainly, but doesn’t embody it; V is pleasing, Schumann is profound.
Take the second movement, with its dark, heavy beats. Mr. Morris has his two groups of seven dancers each–one group in harsh blue, the other in white–move across the stage on their hands and knees, rising occasionally to greet each other as they pass. They do this right on the music, not merely honoring those beats but slavishly obeying them. Once the initial surprise is over, this use of the music begins to seem more clever than illuminating. When in the final section of Balanchine’s Ivesiana , the ensemble moves slowly on its knees across the darkened stage, the effect heightens the mysteries of Ives’ music. In V , the crawl looks more like an ingenious, even showoffy, solution to a problem than a deep personal response to Schumann. In the same way, when in the finale the dancers rush at each other, two by two, and hug, it’s enchanting, but it’s a lot smaller than what the music is telling us; it’s reductive. Schumann isn’t huggy.
As for the rest of the Morris season, in almost every case the mating of music to dance was exemplary. Grand Duo is a major piece from 1993 set to Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin & Piano, and it was exciting to have it back, with its primitive mood and relentless propulsion–legs thrust up from the ground, fists thrust into the air. Mr. Morris has choreographed to Harrison again and again–he’s inside this music. He gave us two brief solo dances: I Love You Dearly , to three traditional Roumanian songs, and Bijoux , to nine scraps of song by another of his favorites, Erik Satie. The Roumanian songs–I saw the gangly, smiley John Heginbotham–are slight but winning, folky without being folksy. And since the Bijoux were danced by June Omura, who does no wrong, their wit and charm registered fully. Another happy revival was I Don’t Want to Love , with seven dancers, all in Isaac Mizrahi white, interpreting seven ravishing Monteverdi madrigals, ravishingly sung. These dances, in their passionate confrontations, reflect the texts so closely that at times this beautiful work appeared more illustrational than suggestive–but that seems right for Monteverdi, a supreme dramatist.
The revelation of the season was another 1993 work, Jesu, Meine Freude , which has only been seen once before in New York–the cost of the choir is almost prohibitive. Set to one of Bach’s greatest motets, it is the only religious dance work I know that just might make a believer out of me. (I admire Mr. Morris’ exciting Gloria , to Vivaldi, but it could never convert me.) There are 10 dancers, and they come as close to looking like angels as anything we’re likely to encounter on this planet–but then, Mr. Morris’ dancers are angels to begin with. The movement is passionate yet somber; the groupings and poses, the entrances and exits, are so natural they hardly seem to have been devised. This piece–deeply devout but never pious–goes hand-in-hand with Bach, and honors him.
Finally, there was another new work: Foursome , for four men, one of whom was Mr. Morris himself. The score starts off with three of Satie’s Gnossiennes and moves on to seven Hungarian dances by Johann Hummel, and the nature of the piece changes with the music. The Satie gives us a happy lesson in walking, turning, dodging. When Hummel takes over, we’re in another world–the world of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering . This isn’t parody, like Peter Anastos’ Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet ; it’s an amused and generous salute to Robbins’ language. Foursome is clever in the right ways, and relaxed without being soft. It’s also a reminder, if we needed one, of how great a dancer Mr. Morris has been, and–despite being in his mid-40′s and not exactly sylphlike–still is. Every gesture, every movement, is so full and so felt–he’s a paragon.
While the Morris dancers were at work in Brooklyn, Paul Taylor was settling in for his annual season at the City Center. (I’ve heard endless audience complaints about this unfortunate scheduling.) The one new (to New York) piece was Antique Valentine , a small-scale, funny, mordant glance at how courting couples comport themselves. Since this is a cartoon valentine, Santo Loquasto has come up with over-the-top sugary costumes–everyone in sherbet-bright stripes and button-up boots, the guys sporting boaters, the girls in zany stand-up bonnets and tiny, goofy tutus. The “antique” music is standard 18th- and 19th-century, from Bach to Chopin, but it’s played on a variety of tinny instruments–music boxes, player-pianos, mechanical organ. The movement vocabulary is appropriately stiff and stammery; the dancers could be music-box figurines, they could be dolls. In other words, they’re ridiculous–but aren’t we all? Paul Taylor knows what he’s got in Lisa Viola, now his senior female dancer: She can be lyrical, she can be powerful, but best of all, she can be hilarious. Her deadpan is the funniest since Buster Keaton, and in Antique Valentine she pushes it as far as it can go, in a delectable duet with Patrick Corbin involving a hanky, a hat, a flower and a sneeze.
We also had our first sighting of Paul Taylor’s own dancers in Black Tuesday , the work set to Depression-era songs which Mr. Taylor made recently for A.B.T., and the difference between the way the two companies handled this material is telling. The opening number, “Underneath the Arches,” was more vaudeville-like at A.B.T.; as performed by Taylor’s Michael Trusnovec and Robert Kleinendorst, it was tougher, more menacing, closer to Brecht-Weill than to soft-shoe. Almost all the eight numbers had more power–as if they were rooted in the Depression, not commenting on it. Kristi Egtvedt took on a real 30′s gloss in “Slummin’ on Park Avenue”; Ms. Viola was boyishly cocky rather than cute in “I Went Hunting and the Big Bad Wolf Was Dead”; and Patrick Corbin went far deeper into the tragic aspect of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” than the brilliant virtuosi who dance this role at A.B.T. And then there was Annmaria Mazzini, who gave an electrifying and moving rendition of “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
Ms. Mazzini is, in fact, the answer to a prayer: that Mr. Taylor find another radiant star to take her place in a line that goes back to Ruth Andrian, who in 1983 abandoned us in mid-career (I still haven’t forgiven her), and Kate Johnson. Annmaria Mazzini has been in the company only since 1999, but already the amplitude of her dancing and her thrilling acting have placed her front and center on the Taylor stage. You can’t keep your eyes off her, not least because, let’s face it, she’s so sexy. That it’s the fresh, open sexiness of certain 30′s movie stars–think Margaret Sullavan–adds to her fascination. Whether as the tormented “Daughter Grown Up” in Speaking in Tongues , in the crucial abrasive pas de deux in Counterswarm , or as one of the elegantly gowned young women in the welcome revival of Cloven Kingdom , she demanded one’s attention, simply by her full-out response to music and dramatic context.
Ms. Mazzini’s counterpart among the men is the young Michael Trusnovec, whose amazing technique is married to absolute conviction. There’s the terrific new “small” Taylor girl, Julie Tice; a big, big new guy named James Samson; a rapidly improving Amy Young and Robert Kleinendorst, who in the revival of The Sorcerer’s Sofa , turns out to be funny (Ms. Tice is the Sofa.) There’s the glamorous Silvia Nevjinsky. And, of course, there’s Mr. Corbin, anchoring everything with his experience and intensity. The entire company of 16 constitutes an honor roll.