After much anticipation, Mark Morris’ “Mozart Dances,” set to three of the grand master’s piano concertos, opened in Berkeley Thursday in a Cal Performances presentation. But during the first piece, performed by the company’s women, it wasn’t clear what all the fuss was about.
The piece opens with the entire company standing against a striking backdrop of gigantic black brush strokes by Howard Hodgkin. When the men leave the stage, the women begin moving through an often perplexing mix of elegant pointe work and stiff, angular arm gestures. Led by the diminutive but extremely powerful Lauren Grant, the women are vibrant, but often emotionless and too abstract.
Of course, Morris is not known for spelling out emotions or telling stories. He often stays abstract, in order to get close to the music — to be pure like music — in a way.
In “Mozart Dances,” Morris achieves that to different degrees. While the women’s part may slip by, it is impossible not to be affected by the true symbiosis between Mozart’s melodies and Morris’ movement in the second piece, set to the Sonata in D for Two Pianos and performed by the company’s men.
e, Morris breaks down the sonata down to bars, paying attention to every note and movement of the music. The men move from allegro to andante and back to allegro with such ease and musicality, at times it seems that their legs — not the talented hands of Garrick Ohlsson and Yoko Nozaki — are pressing the piano keys.
The men dance very gently, embracing in a circle during the andante section. A clear emotional motif emerges when the thin, blond soloist Noah Vinson appears surrounded by the circle of swirling men. He looks up toward the sky, then falls, only to be picked up with his arms spread raised in a Christ-like image of vulnerability and suffering.
In the last piece, set to Piano Concerto no. 27 in B-flat major, the company appears in white costumes in front of backdrop with red brush strokes. The dancers move in and out of duets, forming quick connections that are interlaced with movements borrowed from folk dance. In this most musical dance of the trio, the relationship between music and dance becomes so fused, it’s often unclear whether Mozart’s music informs and illuminates this work, or if, in fact, Morris is the one bringing forward the movement essential in maestro’s melodies.
Either way, the work is a true testament to the modern dance’s potential in interpreting centuries-old music. “Mozart Dances” are sure to be part of the dance repertoire for many years to come.
IF YOU GO
Mark Morris Dance Group
Presented by Cal Performances
Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Way at Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. today; 3 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $32 to $72
Contact: (510) 642-9988; www.calperformances.net