Seeding Happiness in the Dark


In 1784, Wolfgang Mozart wrote to his father of a servant girl’s ineptitude and thievery, saying, “Were it not that I hate to make people unhappy, I would dismiss her on the spot.” He certainly made people happy. His playful, resilient spirit illumined the musical and dramatic conventions of his time. Even when singers launch into arias that tell of betrayal, jealousy, rage, and confusion, the beauty of his music not only makes the sentiments grand and universal, but hymns the profound love that engendered such distress.

Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and director Jean-Luc Ducourt grasp the joy that infuses Mozart’s writing. The two-hour 1992 piece shown at the Mostly Mozart Festival is titled Mozart/Concert Arias, un moto di gioia, and “Un moto di gioia,” one of the arias the composer wrote for particular singers to insert into operas or for concert performance, is repeated three times. At the beginning, Patrizia Biccirè sings it to pianoforte accompaniment, standing on the set’s oval, subtly ridged parquet floor in front of six suspended objects that look like vitrines stuffed with ivy. Vincent Dunoyer, in 18th-century attire but barefoot, frisks around her, giddily aping the flourishes of the music, kissing her neck, and finally carrying her off. Later, he coaxes Anke Herrmann to sing “Gioia” again; dancing, he tosses pieces of his attire away, until she chucks the score and opens her arms for him to jump into. Just before the end of the work, while the third singer, Olga Pasichnyk (they’re all superb), delivers the aria, he bounds in wildly, half clad in a tucked-up baroque dress that Marta Coronado has worn earlier, and hurls himself into the arms of a clump of male dancers.

This aria, written for a new Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, was to be sung as the lusty maidservant was dressing Cherubino in women’s clothes. De Keersmaeker’s take on it exemplifies her relationship to the texts of the songs. In a rendition of “Vado, ma dove?” (“I go, but where?”), Coronado wanders, eyes closed, while Bruce Campbell helps her to balance and to avoid falling into the orchestra pit. In a song for a woman wondering what’s going on with her lover, Samantha Van Wissen (his distraction?) keeps swinging her hips rowdily even after the song is over. When a lyric protests, “Don’t say I’m not grateful,” Johan Thelander shows off hopefully and tirelessly for Biccirè. While Pasichnyk sings “Bella mia fiamma,” the extraordinary outpouring about lost love and impending death, Igor Shyshko rocks back and forth in an animal-like lunge close to the floor, and Rosalba Torres Guerrero, wearing a filmy white dress, drifts through a forest of still women.

In the “cassations” (played by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Gregory Vajda) that alternate with the arias, De Keersmaeker expands on themes of grief and revelry, of male bonding and competition, and in one duet, of happy love. The costumes keep changing: formal period attire, underwear, short black pants and jackets for the women (the women also appropriate the men’s coats). The wonderfully individual performers move in a springy, loose-edged style; they also scuttle like little dogs and lope like monkeys; the floor is their domain as much as the air. Mozart would, I think, be happy.

Near the end of Seán Curran’s beguiling new Art/Song/Dance (to be shown at the Joyce next June), tenor Scott Murphree sings Ricky Ian Gordon and Richard Nelson’s “Song of Solitude.” The refrain: “On any given day/Half the human race/Is in tears . . . ” No dancers are in sight. Curran knows about tears and solitude. His works stress community, yet while folk-dance circles and witty chorus lines express this simply, irony creeps in. Holding someone’s hand doesn’t always mean “together.”

Gordon’s songs, many of them collected on a Nonesuch CD, Bright Eyed Joy, are often settings of lyrics by poets (Langston Hughes, W.S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, et al.)—part art song, part sophisticated Broadway melody, brainily constructed, tartly lovely. The tunes—eloquently sung by Michael Arden, Rosina Hill, Murphree, and Diane Sutherland, with Gordon at the piano—inspire Curran to a gentle, skimming flow of dancing. The movement is less complex than in some of his pieces, but it’s elegantly structured—swooping with Gordon’s light waltzes, erupting into jaunty chassés or big, scampery leaps, delineating brief encounters. The hard-time woman (Nora Brickman) of Hughes’s “Poor Girl’s Ruination” fends off Tony Guglietti and Gelan Lambert Jr. by shoving now one, now the other away in midair as they leap toward her. In “Love Is a Ripe Plum,” Kevin Scarpin carries Amy Brous seated on his shoulder—a cliché unsettled by the fact that she strokes his hair as he does so.

Lovers abound, crossing behind solitary figures, winding into embraces. The couples are not always male-female. Guglietti and Seth Williams have a tender duet; so do Brickman and Annie Boyer. A person can be completely alone, as Guglietti is, punching the air and remembering a bitter-bright fling, or alone together as Marisa Demos and Scarpin are. The ever changing colors of footlights at the back (lighting by Robert Wierzel) add to the feeling of life as cabaret—tuneful, bright, and dark around the edges.