Sunday, September 23, 2007

Denizens of Democracy

reprinted with permission

Imagine tossing together hints of history, visual art and folk culture from the late 1700s. Next imagine cooking this mix down to a broth so refined that you can sense where the various parts came from, though you can no longer see their sources.

Then add dance of layered beauty, wit, and design. Finally, put the whole thing fluidly together with three piano works by Mozart.

The result is Mark Morris' dazzling "Mozart Dances," which had its West Coast premiere Thursday at Cal Performances in Berkeley and runs through Sunday.

Given a commission for an evening-long work to Mozart's music for the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York's Lincoln Center last fall, Morris looked for piano-saturated compositions that he could get his arms around. He chose early, not so early and late Mozart. He then assembled a landscape of movements that returned in new guises throughout the night, everything from simple walks, runs, strident marching, and chasing steps to liquidy falls and circles of seemingly endless variation.

Within this deceptively simple format, Morris takes us on a voyage that coils inward to a jewel-like center and out again. Opening with "Eleven" (Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major), the first section is introduced by men who vanish and leave the stage to black-clad women (costumes by Martin Pakledinaz) in a domain overseen by long-time Morris company member Lauren Grant. Shimmering with authority, the pixielike dancer darts in and out of the action, leading the ensemble like an incarnation of Liberty herself, her dancing a marvel of crystalline timing and fearless intelligence.

Miraculously for an art form bound by time, the center section, "Double" is the place from which everything, ultimately, seems to radiate. Set to the Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, it is a segment full of mirroring, designed for the men and led by longtime company member Joe Bowie. (Bare-chested and dressed in waistcoat and shorts, he looks like a latter day Lord Nelson.)

Morris fills the scene with allusions to sailoring, friendship and love. Here, British artist Howard Hodgkin's evocative backdrop of outsided brushstrokes is initially lit by warm red tones.

Then, the music shifts, and, with Garrick Ohlsson and Yoko Nozaki on pianos and Jane Glover conducting the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, so does the climate. Death comes lurking, and when fine-boned Noah Vinson breeches the circling men, sorrows follow. A ghostly crew of women ensues, encircling Vinson, and together they seem joined in an exquisite netherworld.

Morris, not content to leave his actors to their sorrows, allows hope and beauty to wash over the actions. We see it in the delicacy of the gestures, and it emerges in the backdrop in emerald hues -- the green of renewal.

Glory spreads in part three, "Twenty Seven" (Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major). The company is vividly decked in white and set against a modernist red and black version of the backdrop. They form a band of citizens, who parade and shimmer in parallel lines, striding easily, with a liberty of their own. Morris, the humanist, is triumphant.

reprinted with the permission of Contra Costa Times

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