Mark Morris's 'Mozart Dances' at the Kennedy Center

Joe Bowie and Noah Vinson perform to Mozart's Sonata in D in Mark Morris's
Joe Bowie and Noah Vinson perform to Mozart's Sonata in D in Mark Morris's "Double." (By Gene Schiavone)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009

The 18th century looks especially sexy in Mark Morris's "Mozart Dances" -- lots of decolletage and slim britches. Very Gothic romance. The music of the age gets undressed, too: Morris's dancers raise the temperature on three Mozart piano pieces with a luscious outpouring of earthy release and existential reflection that chases away all images of powdered wigs and polite aristocracy.

The undressing is more than an image -- it's the whole concept in this evening-length affair, which the Mark Morris Dance Group performed Thursday in a rare visit to the Kennedy Center, which continues tonight. (The troupe dances nearly every year at George Mason University, which Morris, ever the populist, says he likes because of its cheap seats for students. His group was last at the Kennedy Center in 1999.) Morris's chief interest here isn't a brainy dissection of musical structure, nor does it seem to be to match Mozart's virtuosic brilliance with his own. Instead, Morris takes us quickly into the emotional center of the music, where in each of these unrelated compositions -- the Piano Concerto No. 11 in F, K. 413; the Sonata in D for two pianos, K. 448; and the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, K. 595 -- light and dark reside side by side.

Mozart is not a popular choice among choreographers. Even George Balanchine, who spoke adoringly of the man, used his music sparingly (and then, he tended toward the cooler, crystalline works, as in his "Divertimento No. 15"). It's puzzling, when you think about all the dance airs Mozart wove into his pieces, but it could be that in a larger sense his music doesn't suit the relatively tight, compact sweep of dance phrasing. Maybe the dancing can't keep up with music this rich -- those cadenzas get too hot, the finales too complex and prolonged. Morris had to thread this needle in the final section of "Mozart Dances" -- titled "Twenty-Seven," accompanied by the Concerto No. 27 -- and it eluded him in the end, as the musical excitement built and built, but the series of solos his dancers unleashed in response looked thin. Still, you rooted for this crazily ambitious work to succeed -- a full-evening modern dance work and live music! And it mostly does.

One of the key pleasures comes from the warmth that Morris pours into the dancing. In the first section, "Eleven," (named for the Piano Concerto No. 11), Martin Pakledinaz's neo-boudoir costumes enthusiastically amplify the female assets, with see-through frocks over black push-up bras and blocky briefs. The women look bosomy and broad-bottomed, but their dancing is strictly plain Jane, cold and wary. In her solo, Lauren Grant, a small dancer who dominates the stage, is the antidote.

Morris has given Grant plum roles before -- most recently, she was Juliet's nurse in his "Romeo and Juliet" -- and she all but stole every scene she was in. In Grant's stage-filling energy and magnetism Morris seems to see something necessary and vital. She has a contented air of grace here, grandly taking up space, opening her arms wide to us. The other women are harder, almost boring, but bit by bit they thaw as they pick up Grant's theme.

There's a sense of ballet's lightness throughout this section. Morris tosses in brief passages of light, fast petit allegro and an especially welcoming gesture -- the arms sweeping open as if to say, "This is all for you" -- that is so identified with the romantic-era ballet style of Danish master August Bournonville. You're moved by the generous outgoingness of the movements; Morris gives us a view of ballet from its uncomplicated beginnings, before it was tensed up by technique.

"Double," accompanied by the sonata for two pianos, is a darker piece, anchored by the tranquil and unrelenting melancholy of the Andante movement, yet even as the dancers take us into its depths, they finish with an image of the communal circle that feels like an eternal balm. "Twenty-Seven," with its swiftly skipping finale, feels like May. It's especially poignant, and hopeful, in a hard winter.

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