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Making Mozart Dance

September 25, 2007

Mozart Dances, which finally arrived here via Cal Performances last Thursday, achieved the impossible by exceeding its rapturous reviews. Jane Glover, conducting the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and joined by Garrick Ohlsson and Yoko Nazaki on piano, gave a performance of warm dynamics and perfect unity. Ohlsson played each of the three Mozart works as if he and the dancers had spent their entire lives together, instead of rehearsing days before. Mozart Dances confirmed that Morris, who has sustained his rise from enfant terrible to, at 51, a legendary modernist, can pretty much set any moves he wants to classical music and, on the Mark Morris Dance Group, it will come out looking magnificent.
Evening-length and plotless, Mozart Dances, which premiered in 2006, is labeled by its parts: Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 11 becomes "Eleven," followed by an intermission, then the Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos ("Double"), another intermission, and the Piano Concerto No. 27 ("Twenty-seven"). Superficially, the dance’s intentions seem as modest as its titles. At the outset, everyone appears in front of Howard Hodgkin's backdrop of feathery black smudges, and then the men leave "Eleven" to the women. "Double" is all men, and "Twenty-seven" brings back the entire company, plus a couple of dancers we haven't noticed before.

Interestingly, the women's "Eleven" dance is more assertive than "Double," for the men. "Eleven" makes Lauren Grant, a tiny woman who dances huge, the prima ballerina. Wearing a more solid version of the other dancers' gauzy black gowns over bikinis, Grant, curly blonde, fleet of foot, loose of hip, may be best known around here as Marie in Morris' The Hard Nut. Here as there, she's strong, blithe, initiating. She sets the conditions of the movement — grounded and flexed in the legs, pulled up in the torso — even as the corps around her establishes the phrasing, gentle and rocking, but broken with sharply focused turns.

Mozart Dances

Seeing some of the moves — a run that looks like it's from Paul Taylor's Esplanade, a moment when Grant lies on the floor as if she's in Balanchine's Serenade, and then an iconic pose, one arm up, the other out at the side, that feels like it's from the Queen of the Wilis in Giselle — you wonder if this was deliberate mining, or whether it's just that great moments, in dance as in music, have lives of their own.
All Hands on Neck
Each of the seven women does her own thing — a jump, a leap, a turn, a balance. All the dancers often repeat a motif throughout the dance: the hands reaching momentarily behind the neck, as if fastening a necklace. Hmm. If it's Mozart; maybe it's a jabot. Morris's executive director, Nancy Umanoff, to whom fell the thankless task of answering questions in Zellerbach Hall's press room, said she has no idea what it means or where it came from. Someday, someone else will use it.

Jabot or no, in "Double," for which Nozaki joins Ohlsson, we see some permutation of Mozart's jacket. Designed, like the rest of the costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz, it's worn by the lead dancer, Morris veteran Joe Bowie. The jacket is modern, with holes under the arms, but its shape is from Mozart's era. Bowie moves like a bat out of hell, with speed and startle. He falls backward to the floor, rises, stomps off to applause, returns. The dancers, united by their excellence, are a diverse lot, but are generally more willowy, more in the dancer mold, than earlier editions of the company.

The backdrop's turned yellow. The men wear black cutoffs, sheer shirts, and journey from an almost inhibited quietude to macho-man stomping jollity, finally bringing down the house. None of this is story-driven, but we hang onto every move as if watching an unfolding narrative, especially in the Andante, when there's a linked circle, and then one of the men is captured in it. The Rondo picks up the pace, of course, and soon the circle will pick up one of the men and swing him like a doggie door. “Double”'s conclusion, with Bradon McDonald as a leaping instigator, leaves the heart racing.

For "Twenty-seven," the sexes unite. The women are in romantic tutus, the men in various lacy white tunics. The women glide in and out of the wings, the mystery the move adds undercut when the men hoist them into splay-legged lifts, a fine Morrisonian grace-meets-clunk conjunction. A new gesture is introduced — Michelle Yard sticks a pointing finger up in the air as if to say either wait a minute, or I know the answer now, or ... what? Others follow her.

The splotched backdrop has turned red, and the dancers exude confidence to match. The audience may be feeling a little confident, too. Of the three pieces, this one is the most familiar. Charlton Boyd creates a space of solitude as he strikes a deep, impressively unfussy arabesque. Although the stage fills with dancers, more individuals are made to stand out. Grant lies on the floor, her hands clawing the air. Some of the women are supported in little hops, as in Giselle. Julie Worden beautifully unfolds her long body before us. Bowie does a brisk little jig step. People are doing that necklace thing again.

When Mozart Dances ended, the audience roared. What could it mean? Maybe that Morris, as is his job, has set his dancers dancing to something that sounds even better when there's something amazing to watch.

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.