Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Converging Channels

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Converging Channels

Article excerpt

It's been half a century since the counterculture blasted open our ideas about art. Now dance artists have absorbed so many resources outside modern dance and ballet studios that the traditional categories can hardly be discerned anymore. In Boston, several dance performances last spring showed how the counterculture's democratizing impulses have permeated the mainstream. Boston Ballet has incorporated "contemporary dance" as a staple alongside its more traditional repertory for several years; now it devotes whole programs to the work of artistic director Mikko Nissinen's Finnish protégé Jorma Elo and other European crossover choreographers. Alvin Ailey died in 1989, but his company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is stronger than ever. Ailey was the first modern dancer to imagine a wide-ranging repertory of accessible works, especially those of African-American choreographers, and his company has gained worldwide popularity. It made its 44lh appearance in Boston under the auspices of Celebrity Series. Mark Morris, a modern dancer with his own eclectic background, directed and choreographed a production of the opera Acis and Galatea that was both scrupulously musical and visually postmodern.

For Acis, Morris convened a rich assortment of resources. Amply bankrolled with a co-commission from the Celebrity Series of Boston, Cal Performances in Berkeley, and other important presenters, it was given in Boston shortly after its premiere in California and three months before Lincoln Center. Nicholas McGegan conducted the Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus of Boston's venerable Handel and Haydn Society. Vocal soloists Sherezade Panthaki (Galatea), Thomas Cooley (Acis), Zack Finkelstein (Damon), and Douglas Williams (Polyphemus) held forth onstage with the dancers. All were decked out in Isaac Mizrahi's costumes against Adrianne Lobel's colorsplashed backdrop and scrims and Michael Chybowski's lighting.

What was postmodern about Morris' staging was the overlap of styles and references. The score itself represents two layers of musical interpretation and two historical periods. Handel's 1718 setting of the Greek myth was intended as a masque for singers. It was reworked 70 years later by Mozart for a larger orchestra in Baroque style; this was the arrangement used by Morris and McGegan. I don't know when dancers were added to the opera, or if it always had dancers, but in his staging Morris featured his whole company of 18 dancers, with four solo singers to carry the story of the mythical Galatea, her lover Acis, and his rival the monster Polyphemus. A vocal chorus made comments from the pit. The dancers reflected on the story, a counterpart in motion to the chorus that chants its commentary in a Greek drama. Morris adhered to both the declamatory delivery of the masque, for the singers, and to stately designs descended from the Baroque idiom, for the dancers. The solo singers joined the dancers when the choreography was at its simplest. Both the men and women dancers wore light green filmy long skirts, with scrappy tops for the women. But the solo singers were dressed in street clothes of no particular period: shirts and pants for the men and an unbecoming short dirndl dress for the soprano. All the performers went barefoot. This casual mismatch of costuming was consistent with the action.

Morris' dance movement is homemade-looking. Steps are based on everyday walking, skipping, and running, expanded and elaborated with occasional leaping, turning, swaying in concert with the music. Big bilateral gestures dominate the upper body. The dancers didn't "act" as part of the plot like the ensemble in a story ballet. They danced backup to the singers, sometimes upstaging them or supplanting them when they left the stage, but seldom did the two entities create a pattern together. The dance was abstract, composed of framing designs, expressive surges and sweeps, and consoling circles, while the singers delivered their lines standing in place. …

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