Mark Morris—the wonder boy of dance for more than two decades now—has been going through a bad patch. Although he has a fanatically faithful audience and a splendid new facility in Brooklyn across from B.A.M., there hasn’t been a new work to rank with his finest for a number of years now. His recent Sylvia got a mixed reception here (I was one of the doubters), and an even more recent King Arthur has been mauled by critics in London. Which explains the relief that many of us are feeling over his latest major effort, Mozart Dances, which just played to three sold-out houses at the New York State Theater as part of this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival.
It was daring—perhaps foolhardy—of Morris to use not only three extended works by Mozart, but three extended piano works: the 11th and 27th concertos, with the Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos sandwiched in between. As a result, the three ballets, despite the intermissions separating them, tend to blend into one very long piece. But a) beggars can’t be choosers, and b) sometimes more is more. There’s a happy swell of dance invention from start to finish that keeps Mozart Dances afloat—and its dancers in dance heaven.
The three pieces are linked not only by their composer and—this season—by their pianist (the eminent Emanuel Ax, joined by Yoko Nozaki for the Double Sonata), but by their fresh and evocative backdrops by (Sir) Howard Hodgkin: huge, cheerful, feathery whorls of color against a white background. There are also dance motifs that link the three works—again and again, for instance, the dancers clasp their hands behind their necks; and there’s a strutting walk, heels down hard on the stage, that keeps recurring. (It’s cute—perhaps a little too cute.)
There’s also a deliberate structural connection. “Eleven” is essentially for women, with the men making a brief appearance at the start; “Double” is for the guys, with the women invading the stage for a minute or so midway through; “Twenty-seven” is for all 16 dancers, and it’s very boy-girl in its makeup—very couply.
“Eleven” is essentially a back-and-forth between Lauren Grant and the seven other girls. She’s Morris’ brilliant little hand grenade—short, compact, dynamic, with an explosion of yellow curls. In the first movement, she’s the piano, the girls are the orchestra: It’s all very strictly on the music that way until we get to the big splashy cadenza, when Grant falls to the ground and the seven others flail out of their careful backup patterns into a wild, jokey free-for-all—and then retreat into support mode. Grant used to be an oddball; she’s matured into a terrific main attraction, giving everything she’s got with her quick, darting reverses and turns. There’s lots of bird business in Mozart Dances, and in “Eleven” Grant is like a wren or a sparrow, perky, self-assured and indefatigable.
In “Double,” the central figure is Joe Bowie, dressed in a kind of open frock coat—very 18th-century—over black shorts and bare chest. He’s the chief strutter, and his chest pouts out—if he’s a bird, he’s a pigeon. The seven other men echo him—that strut is at moments almost like a group goosestep (more birds). But one of the seven emerges from the group during the long, dimly lit second movement. He’s a kid named Noah Vinson, who joined the company only two years ago and who has to be older than he looks. Talk about odd birds! He’s small, narrow, thin: a boy. But he has a convincing lyricism and an especially supple back, and Morris uses his different look by putting him in the middle of a six-man ring-around-the-rosy circle, where he suffers (from what?), survives, is mentored by the Bowie figure, and is absorbed back into the group. This weaving circle is ingeniously plotted and emotionally resonant, but it goes on too long—until it’s jump-started again by the shock of that momentary dramatic intervention of the girls, rushing on in long, white tulle skirts. And then comes an allegro molto that has everybody flying. Look at Elisa Clark, new to the company last year but an experienced—and exciting—dancer: Morris is already showcasing her. Look at Amber Darragh, fresh from her triumph last year as Dido (Morris’ onetime role in his version of Dido and Aeneas), now dancing with a new expansiveness and power. Look at Bradon McDonald, at Maile Okamura, at Michelle Yard—look at all of them!
The final dance, “Twenty-seven,” is in some ways the simplest—the most buoyant and transparent. Everyone’s now in white, the girls in lovely summery white dresses, the guys in white shirts over white shorts. This concerto, his last, is one of Mozart’s great works, but Morris doesn’t treat it solemnly—he flies under the radar with some of his most light-hearted invention since L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, his masterpiece from 1988. The second movement features a quartet of his senior dancers: Bowie, Grant, the beautiful Julie Worden, the quirky John Heginbotham. (The four of them are extraordinarily dissimilar physically, but they’re alike in their intensity and fullness of attack.) And the final movement, with all the dancers caught up in the simple yet profound charm of its music, coming back and back onto the stage in ever-changing solos and combinations, brings the three-part evening to a high-voltage finale.
Yet, notwithstanding its nonstop felicities and the sheer pleasure it affords, I’m left feeling that Mozart Dances is less than a masterpiece. Because the shape of the three pieces of music is the same—fast movement, slow movement, fast movement—and because their texture, despite Mozart’s exquisite variety, is relatively consistent, the evening doesn’t build (the way L’Allegro does); it accretes. The three sections echo each other rather than deepen each other, which may be why there’s something of a here-we-go-again feeling by the time we get to “Twenty-seven”—I wonder whether it mightn’t one day be even more effective as a single Mozart piece on a mixed bill.
In a recent Time Out interview, Mark Morris quotes Balanchine as saying that Mozart can’t be choreographed, and that “it’s just not true.” Come on, Mark, are you telling us you don’t know—and love—Mr. B.’s Divertimento No. 15? That sublime work goes deeper into Mozart than all three of these new pieces—and it does it all in one. But that doesn’t take away from the remarkable achievement of Mozart Dances. Apart from everything else, this less than perfect but lovely and seductive work reminds us that in these difficult days, we need Mozart more than ever.