Mark Morris Dance Company
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley, 9/30/06
I am, rather uncharacteristically, speechless.
Not that that’s going to stop me.
I guess I should start by saying that it’s magnificent. Much of what I’m about to say is going to make it sound ditzy and dumb, so I should make it clear from the outset that it’s neither. It’s extremely goofy; it’s utterly shameless; it will do absolutely anything to get attention or admiration or cheap laughs. But it’s not ditzy, and it’s not dumb. It’s one of the most splendid performances of any kind I’ve seen all year.
It’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which King Arthur never makes an appeareance. (His hat is often on stage, though.)
It’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which all the parts with story and narrative have been expunged, leaving behind a series of songs on the topics of (a) how we should all have lots of sex while we’re young, because life is short and soon it’ll be too late, and (b) how fabulously terrific England is.
It’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — featuring cheap tinsel curtains, sequined top hats, gym shoes with flashing red lights, and rhythmic-gymnastic ribbon routines. Among other things. Among many, many other things.
It’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which a magical spirit is costumed in a blue cardigan, costume-shop butterfly wings, and a set of silver sparkly dealy-boppers.
It’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which women and men partner indiscriminately, and you often aren’t sure which is which anyway.
It’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which the naked river spirits dress in an astonishing variety of silly underwear, from pantaloons to boxer shorts.
It’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which the sets have no ornamentation or facade of any kind. Moving platforms are black with big yellow X’s; moving staircases are bare metal; trees are blatantly artificial and set in big wooden blocks; and the snow in the winter scene is generated by a perforated roll-up shade filled with fake snow, being operated center stage by one of the dancers.
It’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which, in defiance of absolutely every rule about setting dance to vocal music, the song lyrics are broadly and literally mimed by the dance movements. Not just once or twice, but over and over again.
Now, if this were being done by college dance majors or a local avante-garde theater company, it would be pretentious and laughable. But this is the Mark Morris Dance Company, and they completely get away with it. They get away with it because they know their shit. They get away with it because they dance with genius and discipline. Every movement, even the goofiest — especially the goofiest — is flawless, fluid and controlled, powerful and graceful. They did a schottische — a fun but lumbering dance that always makes me feel like I’m wearing ten-pound boots — and made it look weightless and lithe… while still, somehow, preserving the dance’s essential dorkiness. They did a Maypole dance that made Ingrid afraid to ever get near a Maypole again for fear of being unworthy (while, at the same time, she was busily stealing ideas).
And every moment of it is just flat-out beautiful. Sometimes it’s simply and straightforwardly beautiful — the sumptuous and romantic partner/mirror duet between the two women springs to my always libidinous mind. And some of it is dazzlingly beautiful while at the same time being goofy and ridiculous — most notably the ensemble piece that frantically weaves and dashes through a constantly moving set of free-standing mirrored doors, looking for all the world like twenty cheesy stage magicians in a fun house mirror maze, all competing for attention.
In the end, I think that’s what capped it for me. Mark Morris and his dancers have every shred of the discipline and devotion required by high art — with absolutely none of its stuffiness and self-importance, and none of its sense that That Simply Isn’t Done, Dear. Morris clearly believes that high art and low entertainment not only aren’t contradictory, but are actually complimentary, even symbiotic. And so the gasps of epiphany and the cheap laughs don’t alternate or compete — they come together, a simultaneous orgasm of aesthetic delight.
It fuckin’ rocks, dude.
King Arthur continues at Zellerbach until Oct. 7.