Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mark Morris' Acis and Galatea

Douglas Williams (Polyphemus) with Spencer Ramirez, Lauren Grant, and Noah Vinson. Photo: Richard Termine
Mark Morris is among the few modern choreographers at this moment who can put together—direct and choreograph—a dance-driven, full-length opera. His new production of Handel's Acis and Galatea was performed as part of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival at the Koch Theater last week. It is telling, and fitting, that Morris is as at home in this music festival as anywhere else. The music which provides the structure, however, is at times fallible. The opera itself is largely light, bubbly, sometimes silly, with jaunty rhythms and repeating lyrics, and a trenchant, somber aria by Galatea, mourning Acis, prior to a festive finale. It's also sometimes irritating, like a pop music station where you hear a clunker every now and then. It might explain why it's not as commonly performed as other Handel compositions.

The pre-dance overture however, with a toe-tapping tempo, is an immediate reminder of the joys of hearing well-played music, live. Nicholas McGegan conducts the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale with finesse and verve. (It is clear that the orchestra takes things seriously from the program's list of instruments and their provenances; some date back to the 17th century.) The 18 dancers sweep on and off in arcs, ebbing and flowing, spelling out some of the shapes that accumulate to create a selected syntax specific to this work, as Morris does with each dance he creates. Draped tree branch hands, or arms straight, palms spread, as a dancer rushes upstage. A woman is lifted and wafted back to earth, one arm held higher than the other. A couple echoes one another's side leg lifts, with the man peeling backward. The endless repetition of musical phrases means a mirroring of the companion dance phrases, providing ample views and reviews.

The singers, pure and agile in voice, were integrated into the movement, sometimes more successfully than others. Soprano Yulia Van Doren (Galatea) moved more naturally than her paramour, Acis (tenor Thomas Cooley), who might have benefitted from more movement training, particularly in simply running across the stage. Tenor Isaiah Bell (Damon) sang with ringing clarity and youthful brio. But it was Douglas Williams who grabbed the spotlight as bad-boy Polyphemus, rejected by Acis. In a snarling solo, he groped each dancer as they passed by him with increasing reluctance, as if on a conveyor belt. This from a choreographer who once famously yelled "No more rape!" at a performance of Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs. But a cluster of dancers forms a chair for Polyphemus, who is in turn groped by them—turnabout is fair play. In the end, he throws a boulder (appropriately, the rock-solid Maile Okamura, held aloft by two men) to strike dead Acis, whom Galatea resurrects as a flowing, life-giving stream.

A joyous finale. Photo: Richard Termine
Adrienne Lobel created vivid, expressionistic painted drops; one psych evokes a mountainous grove, another more rigid geometric forms, and a mid-stage drop features cut-out portals. When they are all lowered in place, the effect is visual cacophony. The stage is covered with a garish green marley—more tennis court than grass—whose effect was heightened by Michael Chybowski's lighting. Isaac Mizrahi designed wonderful floor-length chiffon, floral camo print dresses for the women and skirts for the men; the singers wore individual designs in varying plant hues.  

Morris is masterful at creating lilting, organic movement phrases that present a bright, philanthropic view of love and life. His dancers glow and gaze with affection at one another, and at the singers. There are also humorous sardonic scenes, such as when some of the women gang up with Galatea and pummel Polyphemus. Rita Donahue leads a memorable scene comprising a rapid series of strident gestures—hands stab the air, arms flail as if rowing followed by a violent stomp, a phrase which elicited giggles time and again. In another section, to a militaristic march, Laurel Lynch, carriage upright, sweeps her bent leg in an arc and straightens her limbs rigidly. In a visual non sequitur, Polyphemus lies on the ground and circles his ankles like a dancer warming up. The movements can get literal—to the phrase "ample strides," several dancers lift and vault another who plants her flexed feet defiantly. For a playful choreographer such as Morris, even if the results can be somewhat obvious, such visual pictures are priceless gifts in an oeuvre filled with days worth of non-narrative choreography

Integrating opera singers and dancers onstage is, of course, nothing new. (Once in a blue moon, someone like Simon Keenlyside, who is an impressively fleet physical presence, comes along to shift the paradigm.) It's one way Morris has approached opera—he also worked this way with the Met's Orfeo and Eurydice a few years ago. He has also placed singers in the pit and given the lead roles to dancers, as with his well-loved Dido and Aeneas. As long as Morris continues to have opportunities to do one, the other, or yet something else, productions of even less sturdy scores are welcome.

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