One of the wonderful things about the Mark Morris Dance Group — and there are many — is that the performers not only dance to the music (most dance companies usually move by counting rather than listening), but that they actually dance the music. Morris’s choreography follows the rhythmic and melodic contours of each piece with care and palpable pleasure, of course, but he also expresses with movement the inner structure of the music — second themes and recapitulations in sonatas, off-beat accents, unusual harmonies, accompaniment figures, fugal countersubjects — thus adding a spatial dimension to the musical experience. Watching, and also hearing his dancers move around the stage for a full house at Tanglewood Music Center last Thursday evening, it occurred to me that Morris analyzes and interprets each piece of music exactly as I would, the only difference being that I use a keyboard and he uses the human body.
The highlight of the program was the final piece, Festival Dance, set to J. N. Hummel’s Piano Trio in E Major, op. 83. OK. Stop right there, gentle reader: this Hummel biographer didn’t love it only because Morris used Hummel’s music, although that was an added bonus. I should also point out that Hummel was intimately connected to the dance throughout his entire life; his father Johannes was, in fact, the music director of the Apollosaal, 19th-century Vienna’s most popular dance hall. The E-major trio in particular seems to have been waiting for someone to dance to it, and Morris’s choreography was brilliant. This is especially true of the third movement, marked Rondo but really a comic folk dance alla Polacca. As Boston Globe dance critic Karen Campbell so aptly described in her review of an earlier performance of Festival Dance, Morris “seeds the lyrical movement with the muscular exuberance of folk dance… by the final Rondo — Polka, the group takes off in a flurry of runs accented by vivid back kick turns and soaring lifts.” It was thrilling to watch those turns and lifts for a piece I have played so often. Kudos, not incidentally, to the performers. Morris always uses live music, something I and the members of the Musician’s Union applaud.
Violinist Micah Ringham, cellist Michael Dahlberg, and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, all Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, acquitted themselves admirably, and special congratulations go to McCullogh: Hummel’s piano parts, as I mentioned in a previous article for the Intelligencer here, are of knuckle-busting difficulty, and McCullogh probably played more notes that evening than he had for the previous two weeks.
The first piece on the program, Something Lies Beyond the Scene, set to William Walton’s Façade with poetry by Edith Sitwell, was less successful. Here the dancers did not seem to enter completely into the world of this delightful and unusual piece, nor did their costumes (essentially loose-fitting decorated T-shirts) showcase the music, the words, or the movements of their beautiful bodies. Morris and soprano Lucy Shelton gave a witty recitation of Sitwell’s colorful text, but a bit more amplification would have made the words much more audible and, therefore, entertaining. It would also have helped if the text had been printed in the program book.
On the other hand, the work that concluded the first half of the program, Rock of Ages, set to the Adagio movement from Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major, D. 897, was drop-dead beautiful, the choreography and the dancers becoming the embodiment of Schubert’s intense lyricism. Schubert’s long and introspective movements, such as this Adagio, have often been praised for their “heavenly length.” I only wished Morris’s Rock of Ages was twice as long. In fact, I felt the same about the entire program.