Back in 1988, Mark Morris was wary of joining forces with Mozart, saying he often found the composer’s structures “too fragile, too sophisticated for dancing.” Now the choreographer—himself more sophisticated and experienced —embarks on a cordial and illuminating dialogue with this entrancing music.
Morris’s musicality is indisputable, but in the past, I’ve thought some of his steps lay too tightly upon the scores he used, polishing them almost note by note, climbing when notes climbed, falling when they fell. His beautiful new piece, commissioned by the Mostly Mozart Festival, instead makes Mozart’s youthful Piano Concerto No. 11, his Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, and the late Piano Concerto No. 27 seem like a single deep river in which Morris’s 16 marvelous dancers swim, following its turnings and roilings with ease and pleasure.
The event is a celebration for both ears and eyes, with major pianists Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki in the pit with the festival’s orchestra, led by Louis Langrée. Three backdrops by Howard Hodgkin bear sparse designs—monochromatic or touched with red—as if swiped by a giant paintbrush. Martin Pakledinaz’s uniformly colored costumes have the air of simple, elegant clothes you’d like to wear, and James F. Ingalls’s lighting design is equally skillful and unobtrusive.
Morris lends us his ears, shows us what he hears—the tender camaraderie in the music, the way melodies and phrases are exchanged, the instrumentalists sharing sweet secrets, asking questions, answering them. That sense of sharing infuses both the structures and the ambience of the choreography. Although the dancers may stop suddenly or gesture sharply, their movements are predominantly fluid and low-key, buoyant, and ample in space. Often matter-of-fact, people walk forcefully on and off the stage, or run, their arms swinging. The air of heightened simplicity and the many repeats of themes and whole sections invite us into Mozart’s sunny complexity.
The first dance, in which the men make only cameo appearances, begins with a solo for Lauren Grant. Introducing steps that appear in all three of the pieces that comprise Mozart Dances, Grant’s a marvel, the breadth of her movements astonishing in relation to her tiny size. Her astute shifts of focus conjure up a variegated landscape. As in the dialogue between piano and orchestra, the other women swoop on as she is leaving and vice versa, or frame her with quieter steps. In the slow movement of the concerto they fall and help one another up, sometimes pausing in poses that recall the heroic friezes on Greek temples.
Joe Bowie, wearing a flapping black coat over short black pants, opens the men’s section. His agile dancing, like Grant’s, is full of twists and half turns as if he’s catching a breeze. Occasionally he stops suddenly and raises a hand, index finger pointed. Is he saying, “Wait!” or maybe “Listen”? Morris here investigates Mozartean ideas of exchanging, overlapping, and replacing. The other men feed into and leave Bowie’s solo one by one, then two by two; he’s never alone. Later they repeat their parts without him. In the dialogue between the two pianists, the musical voices circle each other graciously and lovingly. Morris has the men hold hands in a ring, and then shows us the many ways their cluster can open and re-form, pull to one side, and acquire a center (Noah Vinson). Later a surprise swarm of women in long pale tutus wheels around Vinson like an apparition out of Giselle.
During the last piano concerto, dressed in white, often massed in two phalanxes, men and women together celebrate everything they’ve tried before in different ways, in different places, with different partners. Running quietly, they wind chains around one another that blossom into new convivial designs. The members of this intrepid and sweet-natured society inhabit the nine movements of the Mozart masterworks as if the music were a hometown they love and understand. An immense achievement for all concerned.