Mozart Dances

The Mark Morris Dance Group at the Mostly Mozart Festival on Wednesday, August 15.

I’ve never gotten used to the practice at dance recitals of applauding in the middle of a work—to acknowledge a string of pirouettes, for example, or a soloist’s exit from the stage. As a classically trained musician (I know it’s an insufferable phrase, but it’s applicable here), I was taught never to applaud until the very end of the piece and, even then, preferably not until the conductor has dropped his hands or the soloist released her instrument. In the music world, clapping between movements of a work is pitiably ignorant at best, and clapping mid-movement is unheard of.

Dance etiquette is different—I understand that—so I do my best to tolerate the outbursts of applause over the music of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and Stravinsky, however much they make me wince. I nearly cracked at Mozart Dances, though. I wanted to scream: I don’t care that you enjoyed that particular solo sequence, people. Emanuel Ax is playing a piano concerto! Shut the hell up!

Perhaps that seems extreme, but in some ways the clash of etiquette reflects Mark Morris’ charming but sometimes problematic union of movement and Mozart. Maybe Mozart just doesn’t truly lend himself to dance.

I hesitate to write that. Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries famously considered his ballet scores too showy, too musical for use with dancers, and that judgment clearly has not endured. But I don’t think that’s the problem here. If anything, Mozart’s music isn’t showy enough. His sparkling works are so deceptively simple, so pretty, that it’s easy to just let them wash over you and thus to miss the nuance and wit. Morris’ choreography adds another distraction; I found it difficult to concentrate on both at once, which frustrated me.

Having said that, I enjoyed the program. The choreography has a blithe, unpretentious quality, and Morris clearly has studied these particular pieces thoroughly, for the dancing closely follows the contours of the music. I enjoyed watching the dancers’ manifestations of the lilting melodies and of the interplay between the solo piano and the orchestra.

One of the more interesting characteristics of Morris’ choreography is the way he handles gender. In his production of Orfeo ed Euridice, the ensemble dancers paired up in various combinations, all performing the same light steps regardless of whether they were men or women or whether their partners were men or women. Mozart Dances, on the other hand, isn’t so much gender-neutral as it is a sly inversion  of gender stereotypes. In the first section, the women lope about the stage, vigorously energetic and jaunty, and in the second section, the men dance hand-in-hand in a circle, delicate and innocent and even childlike in their movements. None of it feels particularly sexual, though, and in a broader sense, in Mozart Dances, none of it feels particularly human.

During intermission, the pair of old ladies sitting next to me complained that they didn’t “get” the work, and I inwardly rolled my eyes as I eavesdropped. After all, it’s a non-narrative work, classical in the classic sense of the word. What don’t you “get”?

But later I thought I might have been unfair to the women. After intermission, playing close attention to the union of music and movement, I started to feel that the dance’s complements toward the music are only superficial: Morris’ work matches the mechanics of the music but not its essence. His choreography feels so coolly modern that it verges on affectless sterility. It goes beyond dance-for-the-sake-of-dance (which I enjoy) to emotional muffled, weirdly austere gamboling, like poses at playfulness rather than the real thing. And I guess I don’t “get” that. Mozart might have been a classicist, but his music brims with joy, whereas Morris’ choreography in Dances seems to exist on a different plane, removed from joy and sorrow and any other symptom of humanity.

It’s hard to articulate. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the movement—I did—but the work didn’t touch me. How could it, when it seemed so untouched itself? Mozart Dances is the kind of work I appreciate rather than love. It exists in a glass box, ready to be admired and praised and applauded. And that’s worthwhile, but when I finally let myself clap at the conclusion of the program, my applause was for Ax and for the piano and for Mozart.