The Herons and the Swans
A viewing of Mark Morris’ contemporary short works and Kent Stowell’s classic Swan Lake finds surprising connections among them. Morris’ Dance Group and Music Ensemble performed at Meany Hall last month. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Swan Lake performed at McCaw Hall, also last month, but released a digital version to stream through the weekend.
Digital access to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ was released today and is viewable until Monday night; tickets here.
The last time I saw Seattle-born, internationally acclaimed choreographer Mark Morris’ work, it wasn’t too far back into the “before times.” Morris’ The Hard Nut, performed at the Paramount in December 2019, is an impish remake of The Nutcracker, full of mischief and camp and glitter and gaiety (read: “gayity“). It’s a playful middle finger to the classic; a nod, a grin, and a spin off in the other direction.
Around that same time, I also saw the George Balanchine epic, The Nutcracker, at Pacific Northwest Ballet. PNB’s is a joyous, festive delight on its own; but seeing the two — the classic and the satire — in conversation with each other was great fun. (You can read my review of the Morris and Balanchine Nutcrackers here.)
The two also reminded me of how much I loathed the version I saw back in junior high, also at PNB, a version that was much more subdued. It snoozed me out, right there next to the art teacher. Turns out, I observed much later, that original version at PNB was choreographed by its longtime (now retired) Artistic Director, Kent Stowell. (I should note here that Stowell’s Nutcracker was widely beloved in Seattle. Just not by me.)
Morris has feelings about Stowell, and he hasn’t hidden them under a bushel. Said Morris in 2012, “The Kent Stowell legacy at Pacific Northwest Ballet is a real trauma that the company is still trying to get over — such bad choreography. And you can quote me on that.” Relations smoothed under current, long-time Artistic Director Peter Boal, and he premiered a PNB commission there a decade ago, one of three Morris works in PNB’s repertory.
Fast forward to this season, as I viewed a Morris lineup much different from the Nut (this one a trio of 21st-century pieces) mere days after another PNB epic, Swan Lake, choreographed by Stowell. Unexpectedly this time, the works are in conversation with each other yet again.
Swan Lake is an epic of precision choreography, and PNB’s version gives a big nod to the grand display. The sweeping royal ballroom of the first act recalls the festive ball of PNB’s (current, Balanchine) Nutcracker, while the looming woods in the background recall the foreboding tundra of Seattle Opera’s Eugene Onegin on that same stage. (See NWT’s ‘Onegin’ review here.) All are set to the dramatic scores of Tchaikovsky.
Act II is where we find much of Swan Lake‘s iconic music and imagery: the recognizable orchestral arrangements (like the pas de quatre and the soaring act-closer), the incredible army of swans, the slightly goofy quartet. Act IV is the culmination of the supposed tragedy; though it’s hard to have feelings about the prince who sealed his own loneliness. The tragedy belongs to Odette, the object of his desire — although based on the characters marched out on stage, it seems she’s better off a swan.
Eye-rolling plot aside (I say that with a lot of classical works), the show’s life blood is in these lake scenes of Acts II and IV. The precision, coordination, and endurance of the swan dancers is a marvel. Lined up four deep in six neat columns, like an army, their ranks appear to go even deeper; when they flock around the stage in precise swirls, they’re more like a cyclone.
What separates Swan Lake most obviously from other dance epics is the illusion of posing the human body such that looks like a swan. It’s a curious thing: the epitome of pretty ballerina perfection is arching in such a way that it looks more animal than human. PNB’s performers pull off the illusion grandly.
Nestled between those iconic acts, Act III feels like a strange detour: back to the ballroom, where a steady stream of dancers vie to impress the prince. Its choppy procession of dances feels like those paraded in Balanchine’s Land of the Sweets, minus all the festive sweetness. The jester gives the liveliest performance of the ball.
Onward to Morris. There’s nary a mention of Swan Lake in his current bill’s show notes. But if someone asserted that Rock of Ages and Grand Duo were riffs on Swan Lake‘s performative devices, and playing in the spaces in between, I’d easily be convinced.
(It’s also no stretch to imagine a choreographer who recently made a videodance called Kitten Lake — in which cats, a pug, and occasional humans flop and twitch around to remixes of Swan Lake tracks, no doubt prompted by pandemic-induced boredom — wouldn’t indulge in some pointed crossover. View the video here.)
Morris’ strangely titled Rock of Ages (there is no rock music here) features four dancers who move a wee bit strangely. Like … pigeons. No wait, now they’re tall, more graceful, but a slight bit awkward, a tad self-conscious but owning their space. Like … herons. By the end, they’re embodying grace. Swans.
What’s in focus isn’t the birdlike symmetry between the works — there’s not; here it’s more reminiscent than overt — but the ways in which Morris’ dancers achieve it. Where Swan Lake creates an army of precision, Rock of Ages’ birds are independent actors, whether they’re solo on stage or performing their takes on pas de deux or quatre. Where Swan Lake’s female cohort is on point so sharp it’s brutal, Morris’ dancers are subject to a more egalitarian approach. Swan Lake’s birds are precise. Morris’ birds seem free.
The show’s closer, the wildly satisfying Grand Duo, had no birds but seemed game to poke at just about everything else. Like Swan Lake, Grand Duo has four acts. Unlike Swan Lake, it won’t take all afternoon to unfold them.
In Morris’ work, en pointe is poked at more with fingers than with toes; it’s a device he used most obviously in The Hard Nut, but just as pointedly here. In the first segments of Grand Duo, Morris’ own army of 14 dancers remain about as un-pointe as humanly possible, including while taking on a pirouette; a duo suggests movements of the Swans’ pas de quatre, but stands like blockish H’s rather than perfectly upright letter I’s; another flops around on the ground like a seal. A lone, scorned-looking dancer scowls to close out the act — perhaps full of the righteous anger Odette couldn’t express.
Even as it performs classical works, Morris’ Music Ensemble too rejects the expected soundscapes. Where PNB’s full orchestra swells with soaring notes as one, members of the sparse (in number only) ensemble have the space to project distinct and dramatic notes. For both, it’s on theme.
Why no words on Words ?
The Morris program actually started with a third full-length work, called Words, which 60 or so of us watched on a small screen from lobby-jail. While it’s fashionable to blame the President of the United States for any old unrelated thing, in this case it was true — I inadvertently found myself 20 feet from Biden’s motorcade, and going nowhere fast, a mile away from the venue.
And so, Seattle and I had a different sort of collective viewing experience. First, the then-unexplained horrendous traffic all evening; second, the enormous rainbows; third, Biden’s first presidential visit here; and lastly, with fellow late-arrivals (but absent the scores more who didn’t make it there at all, judging by the empty seats), the surreal adventure of pretending to see what was just out of reach, on a screen clearly not up to the challenge.
Sometimes art doesn’t go as planned. But it was a memorable night. And a testament to Morris’ company that two-thirds of a program I saw in person still felt like a full, robust show.
Swan Lake performed 4/15-24 at Pacific Northwest Ballet (Seattle Center); show info here. Digital access ($38.50) was released today and is available through 5/16, here.
Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble performed 4/21-23 at Meany Center (UW main campus); show info here. A pretty good video of ‘Grand Duo’ can currently be viewed (free) here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.