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Making choreography to Mozart scores is what is known, theologically, as an act of supererogation, which is defined as “doing more than duty requires . . . hence, anything superfluous or uncalled for”. The road to Mozartian dances is signposted for those of us who revere Divertimento Number 15 as being “Only for Balanchine” – whose genius had the measure of Mozart’s – and is littered with the abominations perpetrated by the Eurotrash dance-crowd who know, in their tiny pointed heads, that Mozart is, in fact, another word for doormat. So what of Mark Morris and his Mozart Dances at the Barbican this week?

Three scores (the 11th and 27th piano concerti; the two-piano sonata, K 448) and the tremendous talents of Emanuel Ax and his wife, Yoko Nozaki, with Jane Glover conducting the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; three backdrops (luscious, paint-laden shapes and ideograms by Howard Hodgkin); brilliant lighting by James Ingalls, and perfectly vile costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, all part of Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope festival at the Barbican.

Already hailed in America, the Morris choreography at first puzzled me. Eleven is set to the first of the concerti, and largely uses a cast of eight women (whose horrid outfits of basic black underwear and gauzy skirts make them look too bulky and dreary, save for Lauren Grant, who darts and flies through the action, as delicately true as the piano’s
fiorituri). We see and admire how Morris can reflect on Mozartian devices, realise Mozartian form and also say little about what the music may mean to him save on these basic terms.

It is as if the “music realisation” manner of the Denishawn school, that nursery of American modern dance in the early years of the 20th century, had come back, earnest as only a pioneer can be, to haunt us. A sense of despair. Then, happily, Morris hits his stride with the two-piano sonata. A dance for eight men. One in an unlovely mock-baroque black coat, the rest in breeches and shirts (the least tiresome outfits of the staging); the dance marked by bold, striding entries, broad-spanning leaps, and everywhere exploring Mozartian structure, shapes of melody and phrase, in Morris’s best (and sometimes almost intuitive) style, so that you think “how skilled” and, often, “how beautifully right”.

The heart of the piece is a ring dance for six men, opening out, curving into different shapes, constantly re-linking, and having at its focus a sorrowing young man, the admirable Noah Vinson, whose plight is undefined but terribly real to us, and who must, ultimately, face his tragedy alone. There is nothing gratuitous in these dramatics: Morris has found an emotional thread (and a language) that does not sully this sublime music. And, then, for the last concerto (which is Mozart’s last piano concerto) male and female ensembles are shown dancing together, a union that re-introduces movements, dynamic ideas, that have run through the two earlier pieces.

Everywhere in his past creativity, Morris has surprised us by vivid, unexpected insights into his scores (from Handel and Lou Harrison to Tamil songs and the teeth-rotting sweetness of Stephen Foster) and in this closing work, where we may understand how securely the evening guards its subliminal but potent shape, there is a sense of completion, of a journey done. But, like many a journey, it ends with a question.
The final moment shows the cast divided, standing on either side of the stage, caught in poses that are statements both of feeling and of interrogation.

This, for me, sums up the whole shape and purpose of the evening, its perceptions in contemplation of the scores, and its shifting emotional balances. It is, also, an indication that the road to Mozartian dance may now also add the name Mark Morris. The musical performances are, it goes without saying, illuminating, lustrous, memorable.
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