Mark Morris’ choreography for his 18-member ensemble alternates between joyful ring-around-the-rosy and contra dance circles.
Acis and Galatea, by Mark Morris Dance Group and Handel and Haydn Society Period Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Nicholas McGehan, at Citi Shubert Theatre through May 18.
By Debra Cash
The East Coast premier of Mark Morris Dance Group’s Acis and Galatea — an ambitious and expensive production co-commissioned by the Celebrity Series of Boston — has been promoted as a fully-staged opera. It’s not exactly that.
In interviews, Morris has called it “a through-danced opera” where, as in his earlier staging of Purcell’s King Arthur, the dancers and singers occupy the same world. It would be more accurate to call it a dance with singers inserted into the action.
MMDG’s Acis and Galatea plays on multiple channels simultaneously, with the dancers and singers on stage, the adept orchestra and chorus under the direction of long-time collaborator Nicholas McGehan (who gives the score just the lilt and propulsive swing the choreographer calls for) in the pit, and supertitles for John Gay’s English text projected above the proscenium. There’s too much to take in at once, which cancelled out my frustration that the supertitles were too dim to read.
The program opens on Adrianne Lobel’s backdrop, smears indicating rivers and mountains that look as if she had been inspired to replicate the arcadian backdrop of Leon Bakst’s Ballets Russes designs for L’après-midi d’un faune in fingerpaints. Over the course of the evening the set grew on me, especially when transformed by Michael Chybowksi’s coral light.
The story, adapted by Gay with Alexander Pope and John Hughes from Ovid, is straightforward. The river nymph Galatea and the human shepherd Acis love each other. However, a jealous monster named Polyphemus loves her too, and when she spurns his advances, he kills Acis with a boulder. Galatea can’t save her lover’s life, but she transforms him into a river that will flow eternally.
In Mark Morris’ staging, earth (Acis) and water (Galatea) are balanced by a focus on air. Isaac Mizrahi has designed forest-dappled skirts for both the female and male dancers, and their rippling hems swish against the dancers’ ankles. The semitransparent fabric enriches low lifts that amplify the direction of the dancers’ travel, urging them further, drawing them backward, and in one funny bit, turning their human-sized steps into giant-sized strides.
Morris’ choreography for his 18-member ensemble alternates between joyful ring-around-the-rosy and contra dance circles; very literal hand gestures (“where shall I seek the charming fair” has the dancers pointing aimlessly in competing directions like the Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz); inspired phrases (a sequence where couples cross their clasped hands in an infinity sign as Acis sings of “delicious death”); and gag illustrations, like a dancer flapping his skirt portraying the flames of a heart set on fire, the ensemble miming “vomiting” to the monster Polyphemus’ comparison of Galatea to delicious fruits, and perhaps most memorable of all, a flock of amiable sheep.
A few really peculiar choices — did he borrow those pulsing elbows from a hip hop routine? — are repeated more than once, as if Morris was announcing to his audience, yes, that was my intention and I’m sticking with it. Morris’ kinetic calculations can sometimes seem cynical but he is only taking Gay’s libretto at its word.
While Morris directed the singers as well as his company, they didn’t always get the best of his talents for invention. Next to MMDG’s elegance, the singers looked, well, dumpy. As Acis, tenor Thomas Cooley was solidly competent and game to literally lie and sing at Galatea’s feet. Sherezade Panthaki was problematic as Galatea: when the sediment finally settled from her soprano she had a ringing tone, but she tended to go flat in her trills and didn’t maintain volume in her chest range.
Yet bass-baritone Douglas Williams as Polyphemus made up for it. Dressed in a camouflage business suit (a monster of the 1%!) he sexually harassed his way through the ensemble, molesting, fondling and tweaking each one in turn until he fell into a “massage chair” made of their bodies. When Galatea sings “I loathe you” she’s up in his face and only shoulder-high, but you really want her to kick this guy in his netherworld.
Despite the monster’s power, Galatea does win, in a fashion. When the jealous monster manages to kill Acis, Morris strips the stage bare. Galatea has her hand over her mouth, her singing stopped, as Acis lies at her feet. She is the hub of the dancers’ wheel, and when they too fall to the floor, they reach unsuccessfully for each others’ hands. It’s a beautiful moment.
The Handel and Haydn chorus in the pit urge her, in Mozart’s singularly enhanced orchestration of Handel’s score, to cease to grieve. Galatea raises her fist proclaiming “‘Tis done: thus I exert my pow’r divine:/Be thou immortal, tho’ thou art not mine!” The dancers create an impassable barrier between Galatea and her Acis, now wearing a laurel wreath and draped with a “flowing river” of a white shawl that looks a little like one of Mark Morris’ pashaminas.
Call it Baroque Girl Power. You go, girl.
Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes and moderates events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts and cultural venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, she is a two-time winner of the Creative Arts Award for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and will return to the 2014 Bates Dance Festival as Scholar in Residence.
c 2014 Debra Cash