Morris' Way





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For a few hours last Thursday night Lower Sproul felt more LA than

Berkeley as UCB rolled out the red carpet for the opening night gala of Cal

Performances.

Caught up in the Hollywood atmosphere, audience members and

contributors alike rubbernecked and schmoozed as they tried to catch a

glimpse of such high-rolling celebrities as Gordon Getty and Sharon Stone.

All were present to honor Dean Earl F. Cheit, the founding chair of Cal

Performances Board of Trustees and the man chiefly responsible for making

Berkeley the center for dance on the West Coast.

Fittingly, the Mark Morris Dance Group opened the season with

an evening-long program consisting of two pieces, Four Saints in Three

Acts and Dido and Aeneas. The performance also marked the 20th

anniversary of the company.

It seems some works are deemed brilliant or genius simply

because audiences do not understand them. This was just the case for the

American premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts . Though it received

thunderous applause and a standing ovation, one had to wonder if even a

handful of the audience had any clue what was going on on stage, as the

audience was held captive in bewilderment.

However, this just might have been what choreographer Mark

Morris intended when he took on the 1934 opera with absurd libretto by

Gertrude Stein matched to hymnal music by Virgil Thomson. The tale, if one

can call it that, revolves around 16th century religious mystics Saint

Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius Loyola. Like her poetry, Stein's libretto

sounds more like music than language, as it is essentially a stream of

absurd domestic conventionality - basically a nonsensical non-story. The

libretto, paired with Thomson's score of religious music, was performed by

the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra with singers from the American Bach

Soloists.

Morris's insistence on live music combined with the modern,

warm, melon-colored backdrops by Maira Kalman made the sensory experience

of the performance sublime. Surprisingly, the dancing, like the words of

the libretto, was completely conventional and unvirtuostic. Morris drew

from his basis in folk dance and his mastery of rhythm to choreograph

extremely simple movement phrases that showcased the ensemble nature of his

company in circles and lines much like square dancing. Michelle Yard and

John Heginbotham danced the parts of St. Teresa and St. Ignatius,

respectively. Dressed in white, the duets between them inspired the only

real emotion of the work, as the rest of the dance floated on a monotone

level of heavenly elation.

Thus the bizarre illogic of the libretto, the length of the

piece and the repetition of phrases like "Pigeons large pigeons on the

shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the grass" left this reviewer

scratching her head in befuddlement. This does not, however, imply that

Four Saints in Three Acts was not artistically successful, as Morris

captured perfectly the poem by turning it into a work that was equally

absurd and difficult to grasp. It just might be that Morris knows his

audience too well.

In contrast, the second work, Dido and Aeneas revealed the

vulnerability of Mark Morris as it presented the artist not only as

choreographer but featured him as dancer. This work, with music by Henry

Purcell and libretto by Nahum Tate, was made in 1989 and is one of Morris's

most well-known dances.

It presents the tragic love story of Virgil's Aeneid Trojan War

hero and the passionate Queen of Carthage in a completely unconventional

way. Here, Morris played both the doomed Queen Dido and her counterpart the

evil sorceress, switching back and forth from one character to the other

seamlessly on stage. The entire company, all clad in black, served as a

Greek chorus to Dido's and Aeneas's contest for love and was danced with

mythic passion and intensity.

Though comical in his gender-bending drag queen role as the

sorceress, the campiness of Morris's performance quickly transformed into

tragic pathos whenever the choreographer began to dance. Beyond Morris's

physical appearance, luminously pale skin, cascading black hair and rounded

figure, it was especially poignant and powerful to see a man move with such

absolute beauty, grace and delicate sensuality. In this more satisfying

piece, Morris's performance revealed how movement can translate emotion on

the most essential level and made him worthy of all the applause he

received.

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