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Things That Have Interested Me

Hot Foot

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
14 July 2007

I went twice to see the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Barbican last week. The show, Mozart Dances, divided critics. Judith Mackrell in the Guardian was enthusiastic. Luke Jennings in the Observer found a "distinct air of self-congratulation suffusing [the] first night." There was a point at which "wittily deconstructed virtuosity shades into outright mediocre dancing ... the thing boils down to an exercise in liberally complicit smugness."

It is the character of the first-night audience that irritates Jennings: "In the field of the performing arts, it is hard to think of a more absolute embodiment of the liberal project than Morris. To attend his performances today in New York, London or Paris is to identify yourself as a certain sort of person - prosperous, literate, well-connected, left-leaning ... The Morris faithful reward each sight-gag with gales of laughter, but is it really so side-splitting to see dancers marching about like Edwardian keep-fit enthusiasts?"

This illustrates perhaps the disadvantage that regular professional critics labour under: the obligation to attend first nights, and the bias towards the prestige venues. One wouldn't have the same problem on a diet of Morris at, say, Milton Keynes, where I have seen the company perform to good effect. Nor was there on Saturday nearly as much of the kind of laughter Jennings objected to on the Wednesday first night.

But I think I know what he means, because I had already asked a friend about it, feeling that I had sometimes missed a joke. I was told that you always hear this kind of knowing laughter at Morris first nights, coming from somewhere in the middle of the stalls, and the meaning of the laughter is: "Oh, Mark! That's so characteristic! Only you would have thought/dared/permitted yourself to do that." I can see it could be irritating, although, like the well-connectedness of the first-night audience, it is not something to be profitably obsessed by. You'd never have much fun at Covent Garden if you let the networking distract you from the business of the stage. But there is an aesthetic issue here. A company performs in front of an audience, and it makes a big difference where the performance takes place - in what country, in the context of what tradition, playing to what expectations, out to shock which sensibilities or (as Jennings found) to exploit what kind of easy complicity.

The story of the hostile reception given to the Morris group in Brussels in the late 1980s is a good illustration of this. They came to replace the by-then-legendary Maurice Béjart with a very different sort of aesthetic. Morris made it plain that he thought Béjart was shit and that the Belgian choreographer who eventually replaced Morris himself, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, was no better. He referred to her as "de Tearjerker" and said of her dance-theatre movement: "All you have to do here is not wash your hair for a week and then sit on stage and act depressed and you've got it. 'Magnifique! Formidable!'"

This was understandably taken to be anti-Belgian. (Plus, Morris had insulted Queen Fabiola.) There was a hostile press. There was also a hostile audience among the season-ticket holders at the Monnaie, the theatre where the group initially played. But the season-ticket holders were not Béjart's old loyal fans. They, the general public, had always seen him perform at the larger, non-subscription Cirque Royal, and it was from this audience, when he eventually came before it, that Morris got his most explosive reaction.

The whole story is told by Joan Acocella in her study of Morris (originally published in 1993), which is instructive to read now. It illustrates how far things have changed. For instance, the human aesthetic of the Morris group - the fact that it is composed of people of varying body types, widely differing heights, with interestingly diverse faces - came as a shock in 80s Belgium. The bare feet came as a shock too.

It belongs to a democratic rhetoric which says that, just as anyone can be a model, anyone can dance. The rhetoric does not entirely mean what it says, but certainly helps to cheer things up. It adds to the gaiety of nations. Barry Alterman, formerly the group's manager, used to dance a role in The Hard Nut, Morris's version of The Nutcracker. To look at, he was the last person you would have thought of as a dancer. I said to him once: "You give us all hope." He patted my arm and said: "You can do it!"

The Belgians were shocked by Dido and Aeneas partly because Dido was danced by Morris himself (travesty!) but also because comedy was mixed with tragedy. Both of these traditions, cross-dressing and tragi-comedy, are so fundamental to English theatre that it is hard to identify with the Belgian position here. Dido remains for me a production which solved a problem. It said: this is what the idiom of baroque theatre can be like today. It showed a deep imaginative sympathy with the baroque idiom.

That idiom recommended itself to Morris because so much of the music is dance music anyway. In Handel, Purcell and Bach, one still has "dance rhythms and dance tempi - there's still minuet and gigue and bourrée and passepied ... The basic thing is still human rhythms." But there was little Mozart, because, as Morris said: "I love Mozart ... but I find that the structure of his works is often too fragile, too sophisticated for dancing."

It is hard to see why Haydn would do (in terms of structure) when Mozart wouldn't. Harder still to see this after Mozart Dances, which makes dance music out of two piano concertos and one two-piano sonata. Those of us who like Morris partly because he's against all the things we can't stand about ballet also have this confidence before booking tickets for a show: the music will be good and it will be beautifully performed. That comes as a welcome certainty. And, as it happens, I feel the same way about the choreography.

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