No choreographer working today has been more blessed than Mark Morris. He was championed right from the start by the most powerful dance critic of the 1980s, Arlene Croce, who then passed the pompoms to her coterie of younger critics—pompoms that still jump and flutter. He was raised up into establishment stardom, with all its grants and gigs and interviews, while maintaining an anti-establishment posture that flattered everyone involved. I imagine other young choreographers looked on in shock and awe as the money, the management, went flowingly to Mark. He wasn’t gracious about it, either. Read interviews along the way and you’ll find dueling impulses at play—complaint and braggadocio. Clueless directors, competitive colleagues, humorless critics (the very people who greased his path), even the “straightness” of the pas de deux—all flies in his soup. But oh the delight he brings to audiences: “They really love it and they go insane with joy,” he said of The Hard Nut, his disco take on The Nutcracker. And oh the delight he brings to himself: “I made up Sylvia,” he boasted of the full-length work he choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet in 2004, “so I’d have something good to watch.” There was, of course, already a Sylvia that was good to watch, Frederick Ashton’s 1952 rendering of Léo Delibes’s ballet, which I wrote about in these pages last month. But everyone—even the original lead, Michael Somes—thought the ballet was lost. Bad luck for Morris, then, to find his Sylvia premiering the same year that Ashton’s Sylvia was brought magically back to life. And worse luck still for his New York premiere to take place at the State Theater three weeks after Ashton’s Sylvia was performed at the Met. How could one not compare them?
But I won’t compare them. Ashton was trying to make a classical three-act ballet that honored Marius Petipa, wreathed Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes in laurel, and breathed England’s deep green tradition of living lyric drama. Morris did not try to make that kind of classical ballet because it would be hypocritical, given the conservative societal structures built into the genre. He has instead made a Mark Morris Ballet, which is a different animal entirely, a market phenomenon akin to an Andy Warhol silk-screen or a John Galliano fashion show. It’s a brand that comes with its own cultural cachet and aesthetic agenda, a set of do’s and don’ts listed here with illustrations from his San Francisco Sylvia.
1. Do speak lovingly of the score. Morris always makes the music his talking point, lest anyone question (given the rest of this list) his seriousness as an artist. His Sylvia takes Delibes so seriously he even includes the Act Two Entr’acte, a musical repeat of Act One’s valse lente. Never mind that it’s pretentious within the pedestrian scope of his production. It shows Morris wouldn’t dream of dissing the score.
2. Don’t, however, feel you need to bring the same respect to the lineaments of classical dance. Awkward, reductive, even obnoxious poses and positions will show that ballet’s idealization of the human body is elitist and unnatural.
3. Do pick a step or gesture or odd pose and repeat it endlessly in inappropriate places so that, though absurd, it begins to accrue mysterious import. I’m still wondering what those lone échappés mean in these Arcadian climes, and why Sylvia does a first-position plié on a rock?
4. Don’t, when in doubt, forget to hit the beat hard. Critics will confuse it with musicality, the sophisticate going faux-naif.
5. Do quote from classical ballets, to show you know the repertory and to flatter the cognoscenti. In Act Two, for instance, we see the slave-and-master dancing of Yuri Grigorovich’s Spartacus and also the goons from George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son. In Act Three, Sylvia’s sissonnes and croisé fourth are straight from Ashton (Morris viewed an old Royal Ballet rehearsal tape), and the pas with a veil is Petipa’s La Bayadère.
6. Don’t resist quoting from your own greatest hits. Those dryads, naiads, and satyrs rolling in threesomes on the ground invoke Morris’s New Love Song Waltzes, and the whole third act owes L’Allegro. Again, flatter the fans.
7. Do pierce the fourth wall with formal ruptures that are tantamount to winks and waves at the audience, contemporary locutions like the Bob Fosse jazz hands in Act Two, the Paris Hilton hip wiggles thrown into Sylvia’s classical variation, and caveman mime that’s so lowbrow all one can do is sigh or laugh, and, as people have paid good money to have fun, most will laugh.
8. Don’t forget gender politics. The character of Eros wears a gold lamé slip straight off the back of Miss Bunny and sports a “you go, girl” drag-queen strut.
9. Do pay homage to Gluteus Maximus. According to the Morris biographer and acolyte Joan Acocella, Mark believes the butt is the seat of the soul. This focus on the fanny will arouse some and annoy others—good press either way. At the penultimate moment of Sylvia, centerstage as if on a silver platter, the bare buttocks of Endymion are presented to the audience fresh as a peach and lovingly spotlit. Measures later, the ballet comes to an end (pun intended).
10. Don’t let Balanchine’s dictum “ballet is woman” get you down. Like a Chuck Close portrait, a Mark Morris Ballet is always really about Mark Morris.
So what does a Mark Morris portrait of Sylvia look like? A big paint-by-numbers picture of a ballet. Act One is a clearing of lush waterside flora, bulrushes, and a silver spring; Act Two, a gigantic marbleized cave; and Act Three, lime-white temples on a Grecian hilltop. Lavish drapes along the sides reminded me of “The Ed Sullivan Show”—that soundstage look of record jackets in the 1950s, so Judy Garland glamoresque. This juxtaposition—landscape flats and camp swags—is in keeping with the choreography, which doesn’t have much rounded middle ground (in Act Two there’s no middle ground; a big rock sits there, the one Sylvia pliés on). Morris has put an emphasis on cartoonish mime, and also favors bold strokes like the long swing that suddenly drops into Act One, clearly meant as a coup de théâtre. There’s very little fill between flat and big; one longs for the articulation of petite batterie, and for dances that read as vignettes rather than the next number to push the plot. As for that swing, there was a swing in the Paris Opéra original, with Sylvia sitting in it for the famous valse lente. Morris, however, would have done better to create a solo for Sylvia, a window into the character of this chaste nymph of Diana. Instead he uses Delibes’s beautiful waltz to take a look at the nameless nymph who is Sylvia’s “friend” (a special friend, one assumes).
But let’s not bog down in plot elaborations and synopsis changes. When it comes to a new production of an old ballet, every choreographer has to find a way to believe in it, to explain it to him or herself. A ballet is all talk until finally, in the studio, it begins to happen with steps. The problem with a Mark Morris Ballet is that, kinetically, it doesn’t happen. It isn’t pulled from a deep well of steps, a silver spring visited daily and with devotion. There’s something secondhand to this Sylvia, a stop-start feeling in the phrasing, a raw, pleasureless look in the lexicon. Morris isn’t making enchaînements in the classical sense—emotion, image, compressed, composed, and contained. If the ballet troupe of an opera house performed the opera without the singers, this is what it might look like—an odd sensation of something missing, an off sense of scale, background action pulled into the foreground, not built to transcend.
It doesn’t help that Morris goes for disjointed asymmetries in so many ensembles and seems to have no fondness for Sylvia (he gives her the same crush-the-enemy hand gesture as Gamzatti’s in La Bayadère, and Gamzatti was evil). Morris is better with the men. Aminta’s two sensitive solos are the only convincing classical variations in the ballet, full of the hills and valleys in which this shepherd has roamed. And the finale of Act Three’s ceremonial entrances has a bracing clarity (symmetry!) and an oddness that is striking in the right way. Act Three is as thin on dance as Acts One and Two, but it’s by far the most fluent act of the ballet, probably because there’s no narrative to carry. Morris can relax into communal abstraction, which has always been a strength. The set designer Allen Boyer and the costume designer Martin Pakledinaz are also at their best here, with Moyer’s templed vista serenely spacious and Pakledinaz’s Grecian tunics fluted exquisitely.
I will at this point venture a comparison to Ashton. Sylvia’s subject matter is love, and we all know that sensuality, sex, and lust are implicit in love. That Morris is interested in tipping the balance, bringing sex into parity with love, and going at it raw and randy where Ashton was sublimated, is a choice Morris is within his rights to make. But love of classical ballet is also a subject of Ashton’s Sylvia—an ardor that ennobles the story—and love of classical ballet is not a subject of Morris’s. He can profess it, but he cannot produce it. As with so many modern dance choreographers who think they have something to say “in ballet,” toe shoes—the deep spring of this language, the soul of this art—defy him. Morris’s pointe work asks for little roll through the foot, has no fascination with the floor, no connection to the clouds or to daily class (quite often a dark cloud in which one’s flaws are flayed). His pointes are tight and stilty. From the first moment of Sylvia, when the dryads bourrée in from the wings, they look boxed-in—and they are. They’re in sixth position, which is turned-in. And these are supposed to be wild things! Sylvia and her nymphs don’t charge the stage inventively empowered, their pointes sprung like arrows from the bows of their bodies; they jog on like Fifth Avenue wives going once around the reservoir—all they’re missing is Nikes and iPods. And the pas de deux in Act Three: yes, it’s pretty in pink and chock full of grand-pas steps, but it’s also rhetorically forced, as if Morris had taken bits from all the pas de deux he’s ever seen and pitched them at the music phrase by phrase. Because this pas doesn’t connect organically with anything that has come before (then again, what can it connect with?), it is generic, saying nothing more than “I am a third-act pas de deux”—which isn’t much to wait for.
It’s a funny thing, classical choreography, a gathering of many gifts—musical, pictorial, theatrical, architectural, sculptural, poetic, onomatopoeic, and even synesthetic—plied together and unspooling as one gift. It is a passion, and more than that, requires a genius for passion, the hermit’s wish to live on the mountaintop, in the dappled glade of classical technique, dreaming temples in air for the adored one, a woman on pointe. Every memorable pas de deux is a kind of temple, a place of special purpose, but made of … what? Each pas de deux shows us what. From arabesques and bourrées (white wings and a beating heart), Swan Lake. From développé and entrechat (bare branches and frozen tears), Giselle. From pirouette, attitude, sous-sus (rose, thorn, and spindle), The Sleeping Beauty. Perhaps I’m wrong and the world wants all the Mark Morris Ballets it can get. But it needs real ballets more. And Morris has never had a passion for that.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 2 , on page 39
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