Review: Mark Morris’s New Pastoral Says Less Than Its Music

From left, Christina Sahaida, Billy Smith (behind Ms. Sahaida), Dallas McMurray, Mica Bernas and Aaron Loux in “The Trout,” which had its premiere on Thursday at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival.

It’s never enough to say that a choreographer is musical. No dance is the exact equivalent of its music. Consciously or unconsciously, choreographers have things to say, worldviews to express. Sometimes a piece of music takes them where they haven’t been before, but they already bring their own values to it.

Witness Mark Morris, whose latest premiere, “The Trout,” opened on Thursday at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival. Like Mr. Morris’s other two pieces on the program, it’s musical; and yet all three differ from their scores while having plenty in common with other Morris creations.

There are other points to make about “The Trout” — but, alas, not many: Mr. Morris has some things to say about his music, often analytically; then he goes on saying them. The Mark Morris Dance Group and its leader have long been returning artists to Mostly Mozart; the score for Schubert’s famous “Trout” Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 — is beautifully played here. The dance, like its music, is a charming exercise in pastoral, in which the people — with few troubles of their own — are absorbed by the landscape around them.

Maile Okamura dresses the five women in individually colored, sleeved knee-length dresses, and the six men in simpler, sleeveless gray outfits. Though I love those colors, they differentiate and give an advantage to the “Trout” women more than the choreography does; individual men here register at least as memorably as any woman, but not in their attire. Nick Kolin’s lighting changes the stage world as the work progresses: side-lighting suggests the glow of dawn, an all-green view suggests a verdant landscape, and the final blue (with only faint hints of cirrus clouds) evokes idyllic summer.

Mr. Morris opens the first movement with a sustained passage of naturalistically pedestrian, though precisely choreographed, movement: walking, standing, kneeling — people at peace with themselves and one another in a variety of quiet moods. This proves to be a pencil sketch of the colored painting that follows after Mr. Morris adds dancing: It introduces much that “The Trout” then further develops. He makes a pronounced use of peripheral stage space, with dancers often entering from one wing only to depart soon into the adjacent one without crossing the stage — thus suggesting that we’re simply watching a segment of a far larger world that’s populated much the same way.

Often Mr. Morris introduces a dance motif (sometimes a single lift or gesture, sometimes an extended phrase) with one dancer, then multiplies it. This mirrors Schubert’s musical structure; and there are several moments when Mr. Morris’s choice of movement has a wonderful oddity, as when Noah Vinson starts the third Scherzo movement with a tricky but naïve sequence of footwork and jumps. Though the sequence is a lot more contrived than the music, its point — this helpless, unpolished little outburst of impulsive high spirits when alone in nature — is pleasing. Several other motifs have a deliberately pastoral character: a turn of the head and eyes to admire the view, a moment of standing-still receptiveness with one leg folded over another.

The wonderful simplicity of the Morris dancers’ stage manners tends to be more lovable than the schematic material they’ve been given. Mr. Morris makes sure that we register his motifs — they often come like punch lines, more staccato and end-stopped than the musical figures they illustrate — after which his reiterations are more than we need. One effortful lift, in which a woman is held aloft by her pelvis while her head and limbs aim downward, soon looks like a gimmick.

One small gesture, a gentle turn of the wrist so that the palm of the hand — held at waist height — turns upward, answers an iambic figure in the music. It looks marvelously natural and human; and then it returns, returns, returns. And so Mr. Morris’s musicality, not for the first time in his long career, becomes an awkward form of musical analysis. Really, that little flourish of the wrist is a more specifically acting gesture than Schubert’s little iamb; and all those repetitions, by way of pinning recognizably human behavior to musical structure, have the effect of making the music feel far more expressively limited than it actually is.

Schubert’s quintet takes its name from its fourth movement, a set of variations on the melody he had created for his largely blissful song “The Trout” (“Die Forelle”); Mr. Morris makes one variation considerably stormier (in human rather than climatic terms) than its music. Even here, however, he seems to have much less to say than Schubert.

The evening’s program began with “Love Song Waltzes” (1989, Brahms) and “I Don’t Want to Love” (1996, Monteverdi). Again, the musical performances were first-rate. Jennifer Zetlan, Luthien Brackett, Thomas Cooley and Thomas Meglioranza sing the Brahms waltzes handsomely; and the eight musicians for the Monteverdi, led by the always admirable Colin Fowler (here at the harpsichord), were impressive. The soprano Jolle Greenleaf, with remarkable lack of vibrato, conveyed the emotion in the deeply poignant “Lamento della ninfa” (“A Nymph’s Lament”).

Both these works depict loves, heartbreaks and societies. For many, “I Don’t Want to Love” is one of Mr. Morris’s masterpieces, so I’m sorry that I find it much more emphatically artful than its music. But I watch both, as I do “The Trout,” with rapture when it comes to the Morris dancers; they make “Love Song Waltzes,” an enthralling work, look better than ever. It’s uncanny how little Morris style has changed over the decades, and how subtly, disarmingly, truthful it remains. The tension between the moving simplicity of these dancers and their choreography’s emphatically clever sophistication is among the most fascinating performer-creator relationships in the performing arts today.

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