We speak of dropping into it, being absorbed by it, letting it wash over us. There are few pleasures greater than surrendering to a musical score, not least because music has the power to circumvent the mind and return us to the body. And so it is with Mark Morris’s choreography.
It’s nothing new to note Morris’s “musicality,” but what does that actually mean? His critics accuse him of slavish musical literalism, as if he were using a crib sheet to translate the score directly into movement. It doesn’t help that Morris in return delights in provocation — he sneers at modern dance technique, dismisses great swaths of culture with a flamboyant toss of the hand, and generally enjoys slinging around expletives. But the work itself remains, and it remains transcendent.
The program last Thursday at Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre gave the company’s live musical ensemble a workout, from the dark dissonance of Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 through Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s gentle, pastoral Piano Trio No. 5 to Robert Schumann’s rousing Quintet in E flat Major. “All Fours” (2003) opened the evening, with Bartók’s aggressive strings vying for position as dancers in black crept forward and back, their forearms pressed together in prayer. Music like this exposes Morris’s brilliance. As with baroque or romantic music, he gives shape to themes and variations, muted passages and climaxes. Here, he also captures the urgency, the relentless momentum, and lack of resolution in this modernist score. Pointed toes become weapons, and holding hands means falling in lockstep with your companions.
From there, it’s a big leap to 2011’s “Festival Dance,” a sweet and tightly structured courtship between pretty young things who might have just stepped out of a J. Crew ad in their full skirts and khakis. (Martin Pakledinaz designed the beautifully understated costumes for all three works.) This is Morris as he is better known, his boy and girl archetypes gamboling and swirling with first-love exuberance. There are few surprises here, and at moments, “Festival Dance” threatens to lull us into reverie.
Just in time came “V” (2001). Schumann’s allegro is bright and flowing, and Morris meets it with a pop of light, diaphanous blue blouses, and arms that open and close as if to embrace the audience. Then we’re plunged into the second movement, with its funereal refrain that finds shape in a crawling procession that starts out somber and somehow turns comic, with dancers being “flown in” overhead to join the mourning. Soon, the scherzo finds dancers bouncing, springing, and kicking their feet in gleeful little flurries. Having defied death, they surrender to life once again.