Empire Garden, one of Mark Morris’ two new pieces just seen at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival but caught by me a few weeks ago at Tanglewood, is the first work of his in all too many years that I’ve come close to loving. It’s ragged, sometimes it’s opaque, but it rises to a big occasion: the glorious Ives trio for violin, cello and viola. And it responds to a big subject: America.
From the start of his career, Morris’ reputation for musicality has been his guarantee of critical and audience appreciation, but that musicality—once so responsive to the spirit of whatever score he was working with—has reduced itself in the past decade to a semi-literal tracking of the notes; he’s been hamstrung by the music rather than inspired by it. The Ives score is complicated—murky, then triumphalist—but Morris hasn’t tried to parse it; he’s risen to it imaginatively.
Fifteen dancers are costumed (by Elizabeth Kurtzman) in garish primary colors, in designs that suggest toy soldiers, movie ushers, band players ready to march to Souza. At times they’re celebrators, at times they’re mourners, as they react to the constantly changing impulses of the music. There are passages of pure romp (Ives labeled one section “This scherzo is a joke”), then recurring unsettling passages in which combinations of dancers tilt dangerously to the side before falling to the floor. Women are lifted high and carried like boards. Hands flutter nervously. …
Typically, Ives incorporates bits of musical Americana into his score—“My Old Kentucky Home,” Yale college songs (“A Band of Brothers in DKE”), hymns. They don’t come across as pastiche; rather, they’re folded seamlessly into the texture of the rest of the score, enriching it. Morris responds to all this openheartedly, and without literalizing any of it. We may not know what Ives, and America, mean to Morris—he may not know—but we know they’re important to him, and not just because he can match steps to the music or decorate the music with steps.
As with all such ambitious and suggestive works, Empire Garden needs time to settle in—just as we will need time to fully absorb it.
IT’S HARD TO believe that this is the same choreographer who produced a disastrous Romeo and Juliet just a year ago, or for that matter, two of the other pieces that were shown at Tanglewood: A Lake (1991), which is set to a Haydn horn concerto, and which is competent and arid; and Candleflowerdance (2005), complete with—yes—candles and flowers, a modish and mawkish homage to Susan Sontag, who had recently died. New York audiences were given instead Morris’ hit Schumann piece V, set, like the Ives, to a great work of music, but one that brought out the literal (sterile?) in him rather than the imaginative.
Morris’ other new piece, Visitation, is set to Beethoven’s fourth sonata for cello and piano—great music utterly resistant to choreography. (Balanchine knew what he was talking about when he warned against using Beethoven for dance.) This score is so dense, thorny, profound and hermetic that dance bounces off it, becoming not only an irrelevancy but an irritation if not an impudence. Played with deep feeling by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, the music filled Tanglewood’s beautiful open-air Japanese/New England–y Ozawa Hall and left no room for mere choreography.