Mozart Dances, which is being presented by the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Theatre Group May 1-3 at the Parmount, is easy to like. What's not to like — 16 handsome, agile young people gracefully moving to an hour-plus of elegant, agreeable music?
At first glance you might think the only risk Mark Morris took creating the piece was giving us too much of a good thing, but the rapturous response to the piece at its 2006 Lincoln Center premiere and at later performances in Berkeley, London, and Vienna proved that he hadn't miscalculated his audience. His only problem — is it a problem? — is that he's made it impossible on a single viewing to realize what an astonishing, groundbreaking piece of work it is.
Start with the materials it's made of. Setting nine chunks of abstract instrumental music in succession is enough challenge for any choreographer. Morris jacks up the odds a by choosing a composer whose melding of form and feeling makes most dances set to it look feeble or, worse, irrelevant. Choosing three works identical in layout and sonority (piano solo, standard fast-slow-fast concerto form) seems deliberately to risk monotony. On the other hand, Morris wisely covered his risky bet by selecting rarely-performed works. Probably a majority in the audience at the Paramount this weekend will be hearing the eleventh and twenty-seventh piano concertos for the first time, and the 1781 sonata for two equal solo pianos is an even greater rarity: so familiarity at least won't breed either contempt or critical comparisons.
As so often in Morris's career, critics seem a bit baffled by Mozart Dances. Alistair Macauley, for many years a vociferous supporter of Morris's work, seemed more than a little puzzled by the piece in his review of the Lincoln Center performances in 2007. He was bothered by the absence of bravura dance moments, the arbitrarily-seeming poses recurrently struck by one dancer after another, the jarring gestural cross-references between dance moments far separated in time and musical context. 'êAs you see some of these motifs recur from one work to another,'ê says Macauley, 'êyou start to feel a puzzling and fixed structure of connecting suggestion imposed upon the separate scores. Does this lead you deeper into the music? Certainly not on first acquaintance.'ê
Although expressed as a tentative stricture, Macauley's remark is the most revealing thought I've yet encountered about Mozart Dances, and the kind of work it is. I don't think Morris wants to lead us deeper into the music; he's a proud and fearless artist, but in his most orgulous moments I don't think for a moment he thinks he has anything to add to or explicate what Mozart is already doing for us. The piece is not a tutorial on Mozart's compositional technique any more than his early masterpiece Gloria is an excursus in movement on Baroque liturgical practices. But it is also not in any way intended as a visual equivalent to the music accompanying it.
It is, more than any dance work I have ever encountered, a kind of commentary, a shared record of one artist's astonished and grateful discovery of another.
I think this is a valuable way for first-timers to the piece to approach it: to let Mozart go about his impeccable business and concentrate on how the dance action sketches its own pattern across the music, seeing how an abrupt static pose here, a curiously shaped phrase there serve first to catch the eye and then to serve as waypoints articulating an ever-vaster movement scheme. Howard Hodgkin's backdrops, giant brushstrokes sparsely arrayed across color-space, hint at the same idea: Look here, and here, they seem to say; see? all you need do is let your mind make connections.
It's easy to see in the very first section that Lauren Grant's movement is linked with the solo piano, the other seven girls to the orchestra; but more important by far is the odd triple heel-bounce that comes to reverberate through the whole movement and beyond. In the two-piano sonata Mozart explores a range of piano sonorities not equalled until Bartok rediscovered the percussive and autoharp-like capacities of the instrument 150 years later. Morris takes the sonic fireworks for granted; what he shows us is a kind of parable of manhood, fierce, joyous, exhibitionistic, and in the second movement's perfumed haze of sound, rapturously tender.
The third section, the most conventional on its surface, begins with the whole company pulsing as an undifferentiated mass, evolves into a series of overlapping dances-at-a-gathering that keep breaking down into quirky, fragmentary subsets and mysterious solos, ultimately leaving boys and girls together in an amicable salute yet irrevocably apart. A grand drama in three acts has taken place without a word being spoken.
The performances are May 1-3: Friday and Saturday nights at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, at the Paramount Theatre. The Mark Morris Dance Group collaborates with the Seattle Symphony. Tickets.