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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 4 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 27
Mark Morris Dance Group's Acis and Galatea a brilliant confluence of music, dance, and drama
Arts & Entertainment
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Mark Morris Dance Group's Acis and Galatea a brilliant confluence of music, dance, and drama

by Sharon Cumberland - Special to the SGN

ACIS AND GALATEA
MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP
ZELLERBACH HALL
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
BERKELEY
April 25


When the monster Polyphemus makes his appearance in Mark Morris' new work, Acis and Galetea, each giant footstep is represented by a trio of arm-linked dancers swinging the middle-man feet-first into the air and hinging him down six feet away. Two teams executing this maneuver in time to Handel's percussive chorus 'Behold the monster Polypheme! What ample strides he takes!' creates the weird illusion of a creature so massive he cannot be contained by the stage, or even Zellerbach Hall, where Mark Morris' delightful opera-dance premiered in April.

A new work by Mark Morris is cause for celebration among dance and music lovers everywhere. Morris, a Seattle native, is one of the most important choreographers alive today, and his company, The Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), is famous not only for witty, complex shorter works, but for dances set to full-length compositions such as Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. He is one of the few artists working today whose musicality matches his choreographic talent, and whose company dances to live musical performances.

Acis and Galatea, set to Handel's pastoral opera, takes place in Arcadia, so both the abstract backdrops by Adrianne Lobel and the printed chiffon costumes by Isaac Misrahi evoke the natural world without literal bushes and trees. The plot concerns a love triangle among the nymph Galatea, her beloved, Acis, and the monster Polyphemus. When Galatea rejects Polyphemus' advances, he kills Acis, who Galatea then transforms into an ever-flowing river. This simple plot inspired a river of gorgeous music from Handel, played with clarity and warmth by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Nicholas McGegan, and performed by a group of talented young singers featuring bass-baritone Douglas Williams, whose supercilious monster almost steals the show.

The real stars, however, are the corps of MMDG dancers, whose execution of Morris' intricate patterns is at once playful, meticulous, and fluid. Morris deploys his dancers in groups of four, five or six, firing them across the stage in ever-developing designs that repeat, mirror, and echo each other while expressing the sense of the musical texts. Morris is known for restoring music to a modern dance tradition that had abandoned classical traditions in order to manipulate movement to the accompaniment of spoken word, pop, soundscapes, or silence. When Morris came on the dance scene in the 1980s, there was a near-total divide between the elegant, musical world of ballet and the angular, atonal world of modern dance. In the past twenty-five years MMDG has made music central to modern dance once again.

Morris has also brought a respect for clarity to a modern dance tradition that eschewed coherence for the experiment of moving bodies through space, much as abstract expressionism rejected representational art. Far from executing literal interpretations of music, as some critics claim, Morris' choreography is based on gestures that add meaning to the drama by establishing key ideas through visual signs. For instance, when Galatea sings 'Love in her eyes sits playing' a figure-eight gesture signifying 'love' forms and melts repeatedly through pairs of dancers bending sideways with clasped hands, arms akimbo. As the drama unfolds, this gesture reappears in arias of grief and conflict, silently reinforcing the core tragedy of love threatened, lost, and partially restored. When the chorus sings 'Fate has passed this sad decree: no joy shall last,' trios of dancers form a gesture of lovers separated by fate. This 'fate' figure becomes the final gesture of the evening, even as the chorus is singing 'Galatea, dry thy tears.' No choreographer since Balanchine has Morris' power of speaking clearly to the audience through a dance vocabulary expressing multi-layered concepts.

In addition to the premiere at Cal Performances in Berkeley, Acis and Galatea was presented in Boston at the Citi Shubert Theater in May, and will appear again at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York August 7-9. One can only hope that this brilliant confluence of music, dance, and drama will tour more widely in the future, or that PBS will broadcast it on Live from Lincoln Center. Acis and Galatea deserves a Polyphemus-sized audience.

Mark Morris Dance Group's Acis and Galatea, music by George Frideric Handel, arranged by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by John Gay, with Alexander Pope and John Hughes, conductor Nicolas McGegan with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, premiered April 25, 2014 at Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley.

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