Mark His Moves

Written by Susan Reiter on . Posted in Dance, Posts.

For Mark Morris’ dancers, it’s first and foremost about the
music, and his company’s Mostly Mozart Festival performances this week offer a
typically intriguing mix of scores. Two were written a few years apart by
seminal 20th-century composers—Stravinsky and Satie—while the third dates from
a century earlier, the musical era usually associated with the festival. None
are by Mozart, and none require a full orchestra, so the music will be
performed by vocalists and instrumentalists from the MMDG Music Ensemble rather
than the festival’s orchestra, which has performed for the troupe’s previous
appearances. Stefan Asbury will conduct.

Fitting right in with the Mostly Mozart Festival’s focus on
Stravinsky is Morris’ latest work, Renard,
which premiered at the Tanglewood Music Festival in June. The score, for four
male singers and 17 musicians, was written just a few years after
Rite of Spring
but is radically different
in style and texture. Similarly to
L’Histoire du Soldat, from the same period, Renard was conceived for theatrical performance and leaves
the possibilities open for the stage action. For this farmyard fable, in which
a fox and a cock match wits (with a cat and a goat getting in on the action),
the composer assembled a libretto that draws on Alexander Afanasiev’s
collection of Russian folk poems.

Morris spoke recently from his company’s Brooklyn
headquarters about his interest in this seldom-performed piece. “I’ve been
wanting to do it for years. I staged it a couple of years ago at Tanglewood
with singers—a little stage version with the singers enacting the roles. It was
roughly the same idea, but this year it was fleshed out fully, and the singers
are now part of the band. It’s like Les Noces, where the singers are either enacting, playing the parts of the
characters or they’re describing [the action]. The vocal parts don’t match
strictly to the characters. That was true of
Les Noces—which of course is one of the great, great scores
ever. It’s sort of the same technique—and also with the Russian folk music,
both real and fake. And the way Stravinsky used the technique of fragmenting
things, which is wonderful and interesting and rhythmically fabulous.”

Renard has attracted
some eminent choreographers. In 1922, Bronislava Nijinska choreographed it for
Diaghilev’s company, and both Serge Lifar (1929) and Balanchine (1947) created
versions. The composer identified the score as a “burlesque” and left it open
whether the story’s enactment would be presented through dance, mime or other
staged action. In Morris’ version, the fox, cock, cat and goat are all
performed by male dancers, but he has injected some female energy into the mix.
“I added three hens, to make it more interesting. They’re referred to [in the
score], but I’ve put them in.”

This week’s program gives New York audiences a very welcome
second look at two of Morris’ most impressive recent dances. The luminously
beautiful, reflective Socrates, set to
Satie’s 30-minute 1918 score, immediately came across as a major work last year
at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. With 15 dancers, it is the evening’s largest
piece. In between the two 20th-century scores, the company will perform
, a work of robust charm first seen
last March. It is set to an 1819 piano trio by Johann Nepomuk Hummel—a name
that may not be familiar to some, though Morris points out that in his day, “He
had a very high profile. He used to be super-famous. Then he was completely
eclipsed by Beethoven and others. But he was a great piano virtuoso and wrote
fabulous music.

“Hummel was a student of Mozart when he was very young,”
Morris said. “From one angle, his music is Haydn-y and from the other, it’s
Schubertian. And it’s also completely Hummel. I thought this trio would make a
good dance. The piano part is impossibly difficult and it’s gorgeous music.”

The Mark Morris Dance Group’s musical range this summer
alone is astonishing. Next week at Jacob’s Pillow, they perform a completely
different program to music by Richard Rodgers, Alexander Tcherepnin, Schubert
and popular songs from the 1920s and ’30s. Last month in Prospect Park,
accompanied by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, they performed the Rodgers work as
well as dances to Vivaldi and Jacques Ibert. During their annual Tanglewood
residency (Morris is a faculty member there and coaches musicians), they
performed a program of two works to Bach and two to Stravinsky, with Yo-Yo Ma.
And Morris found time to direct an unusual program of three very short operas
by Darius Milhaud.

No wonder the music world has embraced Morris so warmly,
given his commitment to live musical performance and his own extensive musical
knowledge. His acute ear and choreographic imagination are open to an unusually
broad range of scores and have yielded an amazingly varied repertory. “Right
now, the company has about 25 pieces that are up and active—because we travel
all the time and we don’t do the same show twice. It changes all the time
because that’s interesting.”

Mark Morris Dance Group

Aug. 18–20, Rose Theater at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Broadway
& W. 60th St., 212-721-6500; 7:30, $40 .