writers on dancing


Music Translation

Mark Morris Dance Group
with the MMDG Music Ensemble
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
Brooklyn Academy of Music
New York City
April 21, 2005

by Nancy Dalva
copyright ©2005 by Nancy Dalva

Loren Grant is a very small woman, not so much of the sylph variety as that of the pistol, the firecracker, full of va-va-voom and oomph. (Mary Cochran, who danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, is another example of this fetching genus, which Taylor happens to call–rather unfortunately, if you ask me, but then I, in case you hadn’t guessed, am of the type myself—“the runt.”) Oddly, she is very well matched to Mark Morris, who is a very large man indeed, and in fact has in common with him an innate ballon, and the excellent habit of delivering every moment to the limit. They are well paired in the silly and wonderful piece called “From Old Seville,” a flamenco colored number involving a handsome (and it is hinted at, willing) bartender and a couple who drink and dance. This piece was debuted in 2001 on the Richard Move evening called Martha@Town Hall, and hasn’t been performed since. (It is a treat to see it back; it’s choreographic catnip.) There’s something free form about it—you feel they are making this stuff up as they do it, within the exigencies of the form, such as it is. Years ago, the writer Kevin Conley pointed out in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that Morris resembled Jackie Gleason, and so he does here—but Gleason crossed, say, with Count Dracula. Indeed, Morris hunches up his shoulders and spreads his arms over Grant in a way that amusingly recalls his old vampire number, “One Charming Night.” My, but he was bewitching in that, and my, he is bewitching in this. You’d think by now his acting would have taken over for his dancing—and when it comes to the mordant audience-directed glance, he’s primo–yet this is not the case. He still trips it lightly as he goes, and swoops into a phrase with such relish, it’s impossible not to experience, along with him, the pleasure he takes in the music, and the movement it suggests to him. (The piece is to a recording by Manuel Requibros called “A Esa Mujer.”)

More and more, over all, my evenings with the Mark Morris Dance Group feel like that—like music appreciation classes, brilliant, enjoyable, illuminating. I went to an evening that was overtly such, last January—Pierre Boulez doing a lecture-demo on “Le Sacre du Printemps,” backed up by the London Symphony Orchestra. Morris is packing the same kind of commentary into his choreography. I never hear so well as when I am seeing his work, and I want to thank him for it. Without Mark Morris, would I ever have spent so many excellent hours listening to recordings of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas?” I am afraid the answer to that is “no.”

Just so, I would probably not have heard the exact correspondence in Franz Schubert’s “Piano Trio in E flat, Adagio, D897" with the old hymn (said to be beloved of the late president Benjamin Harrison) called “Rock of Ages,” composed by the American Benjamin Hastings. Morris takes the title of the hymn as the title of the dance, and shows us why. Partway through the Schubert, there is a seven note phrase that is identical to the opening notes and rhythm of the Hastings, set to the following lyric, written by Englishman Augustus Toplady in 1776: “Rock of Ages, cleft for me.” Morris makes this moment an exuberant, audience-directed announcement, danced the night I saw the work by Julie Worden, the golden Katherine Hepburn type who so wonderfully animates whatever Morris gives her to dance.

The dance is a quartet, and it takes the Morris gender-neutrality—which is really the wrong term, since he is neutral about nothing, but the reader will take my meaning—to an extreme, in that the parts are transposable, with rotating casts of varying types . To my mind this kind of modular,if you will, composition stems from his work called “Rhymes with Silver” (made in 1997, and also on the BAM program, along with “Silhouettes” and “Somebody’s Coming to See Me Tonight,” from 1993 and 1995 , respectively). For that work, the composer Lou Harrison made Morris a musical “kit” of phrases he could arrange to his own liking. A fun evening, if a recherché one, would to see several of these casts in succession. Well, my idea of fun, anyway, not to fault the cast I saw: in addition to Warden, Joe Bowie, Amber Darragh, and David Leventhal.

In its phrasing, the dance is exactly the opposite of ballet, where movement builds to a pose, like an arabesque, for instance. (Even Balanchine, for whom the preparations and the positions were of equal importance, followed this scheme.) Here, Morris deploys the dancers more along the lines of a game of “statues,” run backwards. The dancers take on a shape, and then dance out of it, away from it. At least that’s how I saw the piece on this first viewing, and the impression was reinforced by the final moments, when the dancers came into the center from the wings, and then walked out again.

In the pit for this New York premiere were Steven Beck at the piano, with Yosuke Kawasaki, violin, and Wofram Koessel, cello. Is there a dance company anywhere with better musical accompaniment than the Mark Morris Dance Group? It’s not even fair to call it musical accompaniment, for the musicians, for every piece, recall the Balanchinian ideal of a program where the music is so good that one could close one’s eyes and listen to the music and be happy—at least, and. B. did not mention this, if you liked the music. Chances are, though, even if you think you don’t, Mark Morris will pull you along. You might not love everything you hear, but you will hear it clearly. His choreography is a series of genius translations, into a current vernacular, of music into dance. You can lose yourself in one, or the other, or in the marvelous, ineffable distance—or the wondrous lack of distance—between the two.

In researching the origins of the hymn “Rock of Ages”—the music was composed in 1830, two years after the Schubert, and whether the “quotation” in the hymn is sublimely coincidental or intentional, I could not discover—I found an enchanting example of such clear-minded transformation, with which I conclude here because it seems such an apt metaphor for a certain kind of immersion not only in the divine, but in a work of art, such as a dance. The reader will recall that the opening lines of the hymn (the fantastic album, so-titled, by The Band has nothing to do with the Morris, and of course refers punningly to the religious lyric) are “Rock of ages, cleft for me/Let me hide myself in thee.”

Francis Arthur Jones, In “Famous Hymns and Their Authors” (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902) writes:
"A missionary complained of the slow progress made in India in converting the natives on account of explaining the teachings of Christianity so that the ignorant people could understand them. Some of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, for instance are destroyed by translation. He attempted to have [Rock of Ages] translated into the native dialect, so that the natives might appreciate its beauty. The work was entrusted to a young Hindu Bible student who had the reputation of being something of a poet. The next day he brought his translation for approval, and his rendering, as translated back into English, read like this:
'Very old stone, split for my benefit,'
'Let me absent myself under one of your fragments.' "

Both photos by Susana Millman

Volume 3, No. 16
April 18, 2005

copyright ©2005 Nancy Dalva



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last updated on April 25, 2005