“Painterly” is not a term I’ve ever ascribed to dance, but the Mark Morris Dance Group’s “Acis and Galatea” was a complete integration of the arts with each brush stroke – song, sets, movement, orchestra – contributing cohesively to the telling of an everlasting love story.
“Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and … stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want? -Wassily Kandinsky
The work’s Kansas City premiere was presented (and co-commissioned) by the Harriman-Jewell Series as part of their 50th anniversary season. I attended Saturday’s performance in Kauffman Theatre as a curious, excited observer on a non-professional night (the evening previous I’d reviewed the Kansas City Symphony’s Mahler 5 – fantastic, by the way) and was primed to enjoy a date night with my husband. I had been looking forward to finally witnessing a live Mark Morris work since it was announced last season. I was not disappointed.
The opera, based on a myth out of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” was written by George Frideric Handel, arranged by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and reimagined here by Morris, who directed and choreographed. They performed in English, with seatback supertitles.
Morris provided a few lines of synopsis in the program, a poetic summary of Ovid’s tale. Galatea was a sea nymph in love with Acis. But she’s also charmed Polyphemus, a giant cycloptic demi-god. Jealous and rejected, he threw a boulder at Acis, killing him. Galatea in her grief transformed Acis’ blood into an eternal wellspring that flows into the sea.
The orchestra and chorus were comprised of local musicians, some professionals, some students from William Jewell College, and some from UMKC Conservatory, conducted by Morris’ music director Colin Fowler (a KCK native).
Music from the Baroque era is so satisfying, the way the line moves up and up and up and down and down and down and then resolves, finally, with a beautiful flutter from the keyboard. It’s structured, yet with these deliciously delicate and shimmering ornaments, giving the line a sun-kissed quality when performed effortlessly.
By happenstance we were seated across the aisle from Morris and noticed him gesturing along as the music began. Other than him giving a little squirm when a dancer shuffled slightly in a pose, his celebrity presence was overshadowed by the brilliant work he’d envisioned.
And it was brilliant: the color, the energy, the work fresh, imbued with spring time promise. The backdrops were based on plein air sketches by scenic designer/artist Adrianne Lobel that suggested forest, hills, sky, sea. Some of the drops had portions cut out so the performers could move through the vast paintings, further combining the visual elements. Michael Chybowski created the subtle yet transformative lighting design.
It was more than just the backdrops that brought to mind the painterly aspect. Handel set the libretto (John Gay, with Alexander Pope and John Hughes) in the best tradition of Baroque text-painting, the music lyrically and literally reflecting the words (ornaments on “bubbling,” for example), and Morris’ choreography followed suit, with movement phrases great and small illustrating the text. While an opera, the dancers drew primary focus, seemingly capable of anything. Their movement was skillful, their expression humane, with a fair amount of glee thrown into the often literal and humorous choreography. They served as commentary and props as well as characters, projected as nymphs, trees, fountains, or lovers. A rigorous step-dance solo, a lock-step revolving line, a fast-paced rolling/leaping sequence, sudden collapses, classic courtly steps with waving arms and loose spines: no movement fazed them and yet it was presented with organic, spontaneous fluency.
The dancers were beautifully garbed in flowing gossamer skirts (the men bare-chested), designed by Isaac Mizrahi, the dappled pastel yellow and green suggestive of splashed-on sunlight. What fun it would be to have a skirt like that! The fabric emphasized every subtle movement, yet created a bright, streaming shadow as the dancers rushed and swirled across the stage, big kicks, wide knees, but then hung close to the body to make reedy silhouettes. (The dancers were of a variety of body types, the men displaying a nice variety of chest hair, too, which was at first startling to those used to more homogenized torsos.)
The work started a little slowly, though, a bit rough. I felt like it was akin to seeing a Shakespearean play. You have to retune your ear to the cadence and manner of the speech before it starts to flow.
The orchestra’s overture was sketchy, some tuning, some releases not quite jiving. The opening choreography seemed overly repetitive and I found myself wishing for more variation in the first two pieces. (According to a source, at the Q& A after Friday’s show a woman commented that she felt badly for those who didn’t sit in the balcony because they didn’t see the patterns that were created. Morris: “Don’t worry about them. They paid more money than you.”)
The vocalists invested emotional energy into their singing and the dancers helped them along mark to mark, what Morris aptly described as “a cloud of dancers,” but integration of all units did put the vocalists at a disadvantage, movement-wise. When the lovers embraced and kissed it looked overt and unpassionate. This same moment was echoed by pairs of dancers, frolicking and twirling, giving each other playful and audible kisses, juicy smacks that had just the right touch of flirtatious naivety.
Unfortunately for Isaiah Bell, the tempo for his opening aria as Damon (a sort of narrative/Cupid character) was too frantic, barely allowing the poor man to breath let alone navigate the rigorous gymnastics of the line. He had a chance to show what a fine voice he has in the second half, along with a helpfully simple gestural phrase that supported the text: “Softly, gently, kindly treat her: Suff’ring is the lover’s part.”
Soprano Yulia Van Doren was the nereid Galatea, a sweet, luminous figure, though fierce in her rejection of Polyphemus. Her voice was light, her trills and ornaments translucent, even if her diction suffered a bit. She was dressed in a simple dress of dark malachite green, with a slight bejeweled flicker, fitting in with the nymphian character and helping to delineate her when surrounded by a swirl of dancers.
Thomas Cooley, as Acis, seemed a little stodgy for a nymph, but convincingly devoted and likeable. His tenor was smooth and projected well, with the necessary fluidity for the line. Often directed to run frantically across the stage, he committed to the act even as he seemed uncomfortable doing it and wound up a little out of breathe when it was time to sing.
Van Doren and Cooley’s “Happy We!” duet (with chorus) at the end of Act I was glorious. The staging allowed them to stand and deliver it charmingly and with ease, their voices skipping after each other in unabashed joy.
Act II was inventive and hilarious at the start, captivating at the end. The entrance of Polyphemus was immense, the way dancers were lifted up and set back down forcefully as to be his giant stomping footsteps and then he was lifted out of the wings in the same manner, with a trio of the more petite dancers cowering around him to emphasize his height and impudent attitude.
Bass-baritone Douglas Williams had instant appeal, an awesomely swaggering rascaliness, and was a convincing actor with a roguish quality. Everybody likes a rogue.
Even at his most horrible, the dancers rotating around him with sunken shoulders in meek fear as he harassingly groped and pinched them, I was more amused than disgusted. (The dancers get him back, though, mobbing him and one even thrashing him with her skirt with an audible “twack!”)
It was simply too bad that such a performer was only allowed such a brief chunk of spotlight. In a more modern, less euphemistic tale Galatea would have perhaps chosen him, eager to make some enjoyably bad choices.
Nevertheless, she chose Acis and spurned Polyphemus (in a thoroughly firm and disgusted manner, the supporting dancers also expressing their protection of the maiden), resulting in his jealous act. The boulder-throwing moment was an ingenious act of choreography and strength, seamless and climactic.
Morris’ brilliant stagecraft was also evident in the tableaux of the mourning Galatea and the seamless removal of Acis. Even expecting the moment (and suspecting how it was done) did not deter from the effectiveness of the movement. The lights dimmed to a red glow, the performers in the background cast in shadow, as a lone Galatea emerged in spotlight to sing her aria of Acis’ transformation.
The post-performance Q&A continued the show, Morris swirling a glass of red wine while he fielded regrettably mundane questions. He is a man to suffer no fools. But his statements about art, his uncompromising resolve in creating large scale works, and his stern, impatient lack of political correctness were pointed and refreshing.
When the wine was gone the question period was over, but visions and memories of the performance will remain intact, I predict, for a long time.