Mark Morris Dance Group


Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

October 6, 2001
by Lisa Marie Claybaugh

It is not often that a choreographer gets to play in the medium of opera. Thankfully, Mark Morris was given the chance and he has offered up a delightful concoction.

Morris more than any other choreographer today, is uniquely able to successfully direct an opera because of his background and experience. First of all, he reads music, which is rare in today’s modern dance choreographer and essential to direct an opera. Second, he has choreographed to opera music before. First working with Peter Sellars and then on his own, choreographing “Dido & Aeneas”. He also seems to be able to effectively work with baroque music. He finds the intent behind the music without being tied too much to the structure.

I have seen a lot of opera over the last few years. Never have I seen one so well directed. Often singers look as though they have no idea what to do with their hands. Here Morris gave them hand movements, the same type he gave to his dancers, but they were not overpowered by them. Although they didn’t dance, the singers definitely moved well and their blocking was fresh and interesting and in the same style as the choreography. There was very little prima donna posing and striving to see the conductor. Maybe because Morris does not have an opera background he is not tied to the time worn standard blocking seen year after year on the world’s opera stages. These are also singers who looked the part, meaning of course that they were svelte for opera singers. The dancers were also of good healthy athletic weights. This succeeded in creating the impression that all these performers were of the same world, not the jarringly disturbing juxtaposition of extremely obese singers with extreme skinny dancers that one usually sees in opera.

The dances themselves were perfectly suited to the music and the atmosphere he was trying to create. They were also seamlessly integrated with the action. Never did I have that “Hey we’re going to do a dance now” impression. The dancers play many roles ranging from toads to peacocks to nymphs and all the movements were appropriate without being clichéd. And every part they played had a different face to go with it. Mark Morris casts his dancers not only for their ability to dance but also their ability to act. There are quite a few musical interludes in this opera, which I imagine in a standard production could pose a problem. Here it was an asset. That may be one of the reasons Morris chose this particular opera.

The costumes were colorful and whimsical and character appropriate. They represented archetypes without resorting to the standard costume clichés. The fashion and theater background that Isaac Mizrahi has is serving him well. He knows what works on stage, but will still push it to the edge. Platee herself was of course the most fantastical. Mr. Fouchecourt was done up in a green body suit with a huge pot belly and pendular breasts that was then covered with a pink and green dress with the queen’s jewel pinned to it. The little glasses she carried around were the perfect mix of prissy and glam.

Mr. Fouchecourt himself has got this character down. He really finds the sympathy of the character and the audience actually felt sorry for Platee when she was scorned at the end. All the singers were excellent. Some of them seemed to lack some power, but that could also have been where I was sitting. In the first twenty rows of the orchestra side, they tend to sing right over your head. The orchestra was wonderfully accurate in its interpretation of the music without being dry. The conductor had the entire production held together without being oppressive.

Baroque opera can be boring. They were written in the infant days of the form when it was still trying to find its niche and sometimes they are unsuccessfully performed in present day, because there is little action and much structure. This production however is glorious and bawdy and truly connects with a modern day audience. All opera should be this good and this successful. Pamela Rosenberg and Beverly Sills would do well to learn a lesson from Mark Morris and his triumph over this form.


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Edited by Jeff.

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