copyright © 2007
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
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!
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
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.