Mark Morris is considered one of the most important choreographers of his era. He’s an innovator and some say a genius. With this in mind I excitedly anticipated seeing his company, The Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble, on Friday June 10th at The Broad Stage. This program would introduce his “Mozart Dances” to Los Angeles fans. The electric buzz in the crowd was palpable as we waited in the cool fogginess of a Santa Monica evening. Entering The Broad Stage where, there is not a bad seat in the house, we were greeted by the dulcet tones of the musicians warming up. What more could an audience ask for?
The curtain rose to reveal a white backdrop with abstract black brushstrokes giving the stage a clean modern look. The entire company, attired in sophisticated black, stood in formation and “Mozart Dances” began with “Eleven,” or Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, K. 413. Morris is known for his in depth knowledge of the music with which he works. His choreography is directly linked to each and every note so; while we listen we also see the music. For example excellent lead dancer Lesley Garrison became the primary piano while the company dancers became the instrumentation in support of the piano. Morris choreographs simple modern/contemporary moves rooted in ballet, which he overlays with constant pattern changes, running entrances and exits and a motif of particular poses. In this case it is the arms crossed behind the head and bent behind the neck as if an exclamation point to a musical accent. Early in, this became a female centric dance as the men left the stage. Bursting at the seams with good ideas and inventive staging Morris disappoints himself and moreover his audience by using dancers who are not qualified for his work. There are exceptions Lesley Garrison being one, whose technique and style is above and beyond most others in the company. This lack of well-trained dancers was distracting throughout and often brought the work down to an amateurish level.
“Double” Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K.448 followed.
Here dancer Aaron Loux leads the male dancers in a pastiche that appears to be a humorous comment on the foppish figures of the mid 1700’s. Loux, wearing a uniquely stylish black coat, is a very good dancer. He elevates the dance to what it could be if the others were up to his standard. Alas that is not the case and though I did enjoy moments of this very long piece I was again distracted by the poor articulation of the feet, the unstable turns, the hunched shoulders, the lack of line, lack of placement and general stiffness. These dancers cannot do justice to the choreography. Still, Morris keeps the stage moving at all times mimicking the intricacies of the music and bringing in the playfulness he is known for. He uses many gestures that are unclear though amusing such as holding the thumb to middle finger while posing in a courtly manner and in pointing at an elusive something we cannot see. Near the end the female dancers join the men but nothing much changes except the introduction of awkwardly clumsy lifts that no one executes well. Because this piece is long and repeats the musical concepts, the dance does so as well. There is much twirling, swirling and circle dancing. I had the sense that we were watching a romp in the park but the lack of technical skill however, made it more of a traipse.
The finale was “Twenty-Seven” Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K.595. The full company is on stage for this piece dressed in delightful white costumes that flattered all. Again the backdrop was the abstract brushstrokes but with imaginative lighting it became something more saturating the stage with beautiful color and giving a sense of expansiveness. The Costumes, Set and Lighting Design are not credited in the program, which is an unfortunate oversight as each of these elements perfectly complemented and enhanced the action. Morris chose music in which each piece is similar to the next therefore; the choreography is also similar in nature, which again leads to repetition. As previously stated his ingenuity and sense of freedom in moving bodies through space is remarkable and compelling, if only his steps and his dancers rose to this level.
Perhaps with more training and time some of Morris’ company members have the potential to grow and become accomplished dancers but they are not there yet. I am confounded as to why he has chosen these dancers to represent his company when dancers of extraordinary skill are at his fingertips. It is a conundrum as is Mr. Morris himself. Brilliance mixed with poor choices and perhaps self-indulgence hampers his vision and leaves the audience to wonder what could be.
While the dancers were lacking the musical ensemble certainly was not. They played masterfully throughout and brought visceral excitement to the event. These gifted players are Sara Cyrus, Colin Fowler, Kemp Jernigan, Andrew Janss, Gregory Luce, Ryan MacEvoy McCollough, Regi Papa, Kris Saebo and Georgy Valtchev.
The company members who do work very hard are Mica Bernas, Karlie Budge, Elisa Clark, Brandon Cournay, Domingo Estrada Jr., Lesley Garrison, Sarah Haarmann, Brian Lawson, Courtney Lopes, Aaron Loux, Taina Lyons, Matthew McLaughlin, Dallas McMurray, Maile Okamura, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Christina Sahaida, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson and Malik Q. Williams.
Sadly I did not see the genius at play as I had hoped but there is always next time.
To learn more about the Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble, please visit their website.
To find out more about The Broad Stage, please visit their website.
Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Mark Morris Dance Group & Music Ensemble in “Mozart Dances” – Aaron Loux (leaping) – Photo by Skye Schmidt