Mark Morris, Mozart, and Full-Length Concert Dance on TV

Over the weekend, I watched Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances, filmed for TV and shown as part of PBS’s Live From Lincoln Center. I actually watched the tape I made of it three times, plus I’d also seen it live last year. Doug Fox was very disappointed with the televised filming; visit his blog for some interesting commentary. Also, as I’d linked to earlier, read Apollinaire’s article for more on the filming aspect of the program, and an interview with the filmmaker.

Before turning to the filming, I briefly want to give my two cents on the dance itself. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary Mark Morris. I’ve skimmed Joan Acocella’s book on him and wish like anything I would have been able to see Strip Tease and some of his earlier, more iconoclastic work from the 80s when he was a young upstart. Now, it seems like he’s toning it down. My first thought on seeing the program was that it was too slow and repetitive, making it long-winded and a bit tedious. But each time I watched, I liked it more and more and saw more of the things Acocella had written about, just in subtler form. (Go here for her current New Yorker article on this piece). One of the ways in which the dance is broken down is by gender, as Alastair Macaulay noted in the Times. The first movement is danced almost entirely by women, the second by men, the third by both together. In the first, the women, as Macaulay also noted, look very weighted and “flat footed.” The men in the second act (my favorite), in contrast, look light and feathery. This is the opposite of course of classical ballet, where the ballerina on pointe looks poetic floating about in the air and the grounded man is her support, her connection to the earth. So to an extent this is the usual Morris turning those gender assumptions on their heads.

And he does it well: during the part of the first act’s piano concerto where the music sounds like a lullaby, the women, wearing these almost dominatrix-looking black costumes — black bra and underwear with diaphonous black chiffon gown hanging from the bottom of the bra to the knee — do not tiptoe around in a circle all willowy and delicate, but brashly stomp forward, arms swinging front to back as if in a march. Hardly the maternal ideal. During the men’s portion, at one point, the men, wearing blousy, billowing white shirts, dance in a circle as well. But their dance is quite different; it’s light and lyrical, poetic, like a Balanchine ballet. But where Balanchine would have pretty ballerinas with long flowing blonde hair bouncing around, playfully holding hands with each other, raising arms, and inviting a dancer through their arc, Morris’s dancers do the same but the whole look is altered because they are men. Or is it? What is femininity and why does gender matter in dance? Maybe it doesn’t. And I love Joe Bowie, the main soloist in the men’s section. I love that the man who, at least to me, represents Mozart himself is an urbane black guy dressed in hipply ripped black conductor’s jacket and black spandex bike shorts. Morris definitely challenges gender and race assumptions, though it’s rather pathetic that they still need to be challenged. And the costumes were simply superb.

Also, Morris is known for being a very “musical” choreographer, meaning what exactly? He works with the music well? To me, his dance is almost a contradiction of the music. His dancers’ movement is very modern, yet the music is obviously classical. Also as Macaulay notes, Mozart has a lot of beautiful lyrical flourishes in his compositions. Morris doesn’t seem to follow those by creating his own lyrical poetic flourishes; the dancing instead is rather intentionally mundane, earthy. There’s no virtuosity either (big leaps, multiple pirouettes and fouette turns, etc.) Which is part of why Morris doesn’t thrill me. Cool costumes, evocativeness and assumption-questioning aside, to me the whole thing generally dragged and there didn’t seem to be any climactic arcs or discernable overall themes.

Interestingly Morris says during his interview segment of the show, that he doesn’t like “poses;” he finds the steps in between poses to be “the dancing.” I guess that’s what I’m missing here. Of course that’s what Ballet and Latin are all about, so call me shallow, or bun-brain or Latin girl or whatever, but I’m for the poses. Of course getting from one pose to another easily is what dancing is all about and it’s necessary to make smooth transitions. [In my own dancing I concentrate so much on the pose -- the arabesque (one leg lifted in back), the develope (slow, unfolding delicate kick), or how my body looks in position in a lift, that I forget to think about getting into the position in the first place. The result: I look like crap on my way into a lift, etc. But I think this is common among students / amateurs, and I'm learning... :)] In any event, watching my Morris tape a few times, though, the dance has grown on me a lot, so maybe if I kept watching it would continue to do more for me.

So, the film aspect. Funny but I felt the exact opposite of Doug. I didn’t think the camera did enough, had enough of a point of view. I was glad that, for once during a full-length concert dance performance, someone didn’t simply plop a tripod at the edge of the stage and hit ‘record’; the camera-operator actually had an opinion, told the viewer where to look. The camera would at times home in on one dancer, either his or her entire body or just torso, then would pan out to the ensemble. At times it would follow a dancer or smaller group of dancers, excluding perhaps things happening at the other end of the stage. These were all reasons Doug gave for disliking it; I felt that this was too rarely done, and when done was still too lacking in focus. When the camera homed in on a dancer’s upper body, it did a half-assed job; if you want to humanize the dancer, make people relate to him or her, get a close up of the person’s face. It doesn’t have to stay there long, but a few close-ups go a long way. The eyes are the window to the soul, you know.

And you can’t just focus the camera in and out without playing with angles. Everything here was a straight shot. Forgive me, by the way, for not knowing correct film terminology; I know what I mean, but don’t know if I am expressing it right because I have no film-making (only extensive film-viewing :) ) background. For example, when some of the dancers were doing pirouettes, do a close-up of that dancer and angle the camera so that it’s focusing on the dancer at a diagonal. It makes the dancer look superhuman, like s/he has miraculous balance and it’s really cool. And, like with those little wrist-flourishes the dancers were doing, home up really closely and find a better shot — maybe of the wrist coming toward the camera — to make it look multi-dimensional or something. And, as I said, unfortunately, there were no big jumps and leaps here, but if there were, have the camera underneath the dancer. This emphasizes the majesty of the height and showcases the dancer’s musculature. Generally, it always heroizes the subject to have the camera focused upward at him / her — so this could have been done at any point, with pirouettes, etc. Conversely, if you want to highlight a dancer’s vulnerability, create poignancy or sympathy, do the opposite and place the camera at a downward angle on top of him or her. Also, it would be cool to have, like in those highly successful Anaheim Ballet videos on YouTube, the camera directly behind or immediately next to the dancer so that the viewer would be given a sense of what the dancer sees, during, for example, fast pirouettes.

Of course none of this could be done with the Morris the way it was constructed. To do any of the above, the choreographer would have to work very closely with the filmmaker discussing the most effective correlation of movement and film angles. It would change the entire choreography. This piece was meant for the stage; Morris meant for the audience to come to its own conclusions about its meaning and evocation. He specifically tells us during the interview segment (which I loved — in a way those interviews were the best part), that he directs his dancers not to make any decisions about the emotion of the movement — if a movement is fast, dance it fast, not happy; if it’s slow, dance it slowly, not sad. So, he certainly wouldn’t want the filmmaker intruding on the audience’s turf either. Which is largely why this didn’t work for me. You can’t effectively film a play made for theater for the same reasons you can’t film a dance made for the stage. You can obviously create a film version of a play, a film version of a dance, but they are versions, not the same exact thing placed on film. Film is a completely different animal than live theater and it must be treated as such for it to be effective, exciting, and garner a good-sized audience.

I mean, I’m glad that this film exists and that I have it taped; I can now watch it repeatedly and gain more appreciation for Morris. I’m just saying that I doubt that anyone new to dance was blown away by it, unlike with SYTYCD. Did anyone else see it?

A few final thoughts. Doug was also annoyed by the film’s flashing to musician Emmanuel Ax, playing piano, or to the conductor. I actually liked this because I felt it gave the viewer an idea of the whole performance with all of its various elements. The conductor and musicians are part and parcel of a live performance. Plus, I loved the music so much, I wanted to see who was responsible for it! I also liked the interviews with Ax and Morris. I like that Ax mentioned that he had a camera on the piano so he could see the dancers as well. Sometimes, when I’m at the ballet and I’m lucky and have a seat up close and central where I get a good view of the conductor, I like watching how he relates to the dancers, if at all. Sometimes it seems that the conductor doesn’t even look up onstage, which can result in music played way too fast, not giving the dancers sufficient time to get where they need to go or to act something out fully in a dramatic ballet. And the interview with Morris: it’s always fun to hear a choreographer talk about his work. Always! I also liked the behind-the-curtain shots, though I don’t know if anyone noticed them but me. I love how some of the dancers just collapsed after that curtain went down! And, when Sam Waterson (did his voice seem shaky and nervous or was it just me?) gave his opening remarks, it was prior to the curtain going up, so we got to see dancers warming up and talking and planning, maybe giving each other little pep talks. That was quite fun too!

I would have liked to have seen some interviews with the dancers as well. One of the reasons these shows — SYTYCD and Dancing With the Stars — are so popular (I know, some of us have had this discussion before with America’s Ballroom Challenge), is that the competitors are portrayed as not ‘just’ dancers, but real people to whom everyone can relate. Little background stories are given — where the dancers are from, how they fell in love with dance, etc., little interviews, little clips of them in rehearsal trying to learn choreography, sometimes struggling with it (again, something we all can relate to), having their own hurdles to overcome — it’s all part of what makes the dancers, and therefore the dance, come alive to us. Mark Morris after all isn’t performing, his dancers are! They could have at least had interviews with Bowie and Lauren Grant, the two main soloists, or we could have heard the dancers talking with Morris during the segment where he is shown instructing them.

Okay, that’s all I can think of, for now…

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12 Responses to Mark Morris, Mozart, and Full-Length Concert Dance on TV

  1. jennifer says:

    i saw this amazing performance last year during its premiere at the mozart festival last year…i truly think it’s one of mark morris’ best pieces, and with emmanuel ax!

    the reason i think mark morris is so musical is that even though mozart’s music has lots of embellishments, the fundamental purity of melodic line is what makes mozart such a musical genius. and mark morris was able to follow that and…when i watched mozart dances, for me, the choreography was the music personified into dance. lots of choreographers try to fit in as many turns as they can, or more jumps…while overlooking the music and being “on the beat”… i think the only other piece in which struck me as music personified into dance is Robbins’ “Goldberg Variations”. brilliant!

    i think it’s hard to build up an appreciation for mozart dances in one go, esp for people who do not have musical training…glad you got to see it many times. i think because this piece doesn’t have the flash, jumps, twirls and campy humor of mark morris’ other pieces (L’allegro comes to mind), some have deemed this to be not one of morris’ bests. i loved the simplicity of it all; you could miss it if you were looking for the flashy tricks.

    i am disappointed that the camera work was a bit shoddy though; but expected. i’m hoping hoping hoping it will be shown on the west coast!

  2. tonya says:

    Thanks for all of that, Jennifer! I do think that people with a music background have a better appreciation for Morris, and for Balanchine’s choreography as well. I’m going to keep watching the tape though, because I keep seeing more things in each viewing that I missed before.

    And, it has to be shown on the West Coast at some point! PBS has annoyed me so much with that — my mom lives in North Carolina and they never get the PBS programming there that we get here. (Last year when Pasha was on America’s Ballroom Challenge and she didn’t get to see it because she lived down there it made me so mad). If something is of national interest — like dance, PBS should broadcast it nationally!

  3. jolene says:

    It’s airing in my neighborhood on Tuesday! I can’t wait to see it.

    Mark Morris is definitely one of my favorite choreographers, because of his musicality. I love how he displays such an understanding for the music, by playing with it, and using the music as a platform for his choreography.

    Now you’re tempting me to tape it as well… hm.

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  5. Melinda says:

    How cool! I don’t think this has come on my PBS, but I’ll keep an eye out for it.

    I love Sam Waterson. He reminds me so much of Atticus Finch, or maybe it’s just the parts he plays?

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  7. Bob says:

    I recorded the Mark Morris program last thursday and finally got to see it tonight. Well, most of it, at least…quite frankly, I found his choreography for these Mozart pieces too slow, too repetitious and on the whole, rather uninteresting. In fact, I started to doze off about half way through. I mean, his work is professional and competent enough. But I guess I was looking for something along the lines of Balanchine’s dictum to “see the music and hear the dance.” I love Mozart’s music but I definitely did not “see” it tonight. Perhaps I was just tired or maybe I have to follow your lead, Tonya, and watch it a second and third time, but for the moment my gut reaction is that if this is the best (or even among the best) of Morris’s work, I’ll pass on his lesser creations.

  8. tonya says:

    It seems like you pretty much felt the same way I did, Bob. It is valuable to watch it again, and so it’s fortunate that we have it on tape, but I wish it would have hit me over the head on first viewing; personally if I was a choreographer — or any kind of artist — that’s what I’d want.

    The reviews are pretty mixed. Terry Teachout from WSJ liked it: http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/2007/08/tt_enough_said.html

    James Wolcott from Vanity Fair felt basically the same way we did: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/blogs/wolcott/2007/08/surf-and-terp.html

    And, as I cited in the main post, Acocella liked it (though that could have been informed at least in part by her relationship with Morris), and Macaulay seems like he couldn’t figure out exactly what to think. So, I’m not going to feel badly that I didn’t ‘get it’!

  9. Philip says:

    We used to see Morris at the Pillow in his earlier days when he was sort of the scruffy, bad boy of the dance world. He had a big gay following and I guess we were among them, His pieces were quirky and entertaining but then I think he started trying too hard to be different and ended up being cute. I hated his ‘version’ of Rameau’s PLATEE at NYC Opera a few years ago – silly, silly, silly – and I avoided his staging of Gluck’s ORFEO at the Met which my friend Dmitry thought was pretty awful.

    It was amusing when Morris announced he would never stage a piece for NYC Ballet because he hates what Peter Martins has done to the Company. All I could think was “Thank god…”

    I suppose it is ‘cool’ and ‘in’ to like Morris but he simply doesn’t interest me on any level. Not even enough to flip on the TV…

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  11. germaine holohan says:

    I am a classical pianist and would pay for a copy of “Mozart Dances”. I simply love Mozart and Emanuel Ax. I unfortunately was unable to tape the program and would appreciate help in acquiring a copy.

  12. tonya says:

    Hi Germaine — I’m sure they probably either have it or will have it available on the PBS site. They usually have all of the dance performances available on DVD or video within a few weeks after they’ve been broadcast, so I’d check there: http://www.shoppbs.org/category/index.jsp?categoryId=2729306