For the classical music aficionado and casual listener alike, the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart hardly needs an introduction. Mozart’s compositions remain as some of the most influential and sophisticated works of art in modern history, celebrated by nearly all of the greatest symphonies and novice orchestras in the world.
And yet, there’s something invigorating about hearing and seeing Mozart’s work interpreted in new and creative ways. The Mark Morris Dance Group’s performance of “Mozart Dances,” accompanied by the Berkeley Symphony, managed to do just that. In its brief run through Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall from Sept. 20-22, the show served as an original, exhilarating take on some of Mozart’s greatest, if less familiar, compositions. Through inventive choreography and the sheer skill and versatility of the performers onstage, “Mozart Dances” was a rose-colored, audiovisual sensation, creating an immersive experience for audiences of all levels of classical music enthusiasm.
The show, split into three distinct acts, was able to feature a different arrangement of dancers for each. The first act, titled “Eleven,” was built around “Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major” and highlighted an ensemble of female performers led by a standout solo by longtime Mark Morris Dance Group member Lauren Grant. Much of the choreography in the first act seemed to focus on the movement of “falling,” which usually seems to be an unintentional human occurrence but was transformed and interpreted in a variety of styles. Dancers would fall and rise at different tempos, sometimes on their own and other times in a synchronized, deliberate movement with other dancers. A dreamy, fitting introduction to the show as a whole, “Eleven” was a prime example of the nuanced, original choreography that the group has been spearheading for years.
“Double,” the second act, animated the distinct sounds of Mozart’s “Sonata in D major for Two Pianos.” A clear departure from the rich orchestral sounds that brought to life the first act, “Double” relied primarily on the dynamism in sound and style of just the piano, which ultimately proved to be quite effective, given the rousing crescendos and gentle twinkling effects in this particular piano composition. The ensemble of male dancers had a bit more humor involved in the narrative of their movements, establishing dance patterns that would become recurring motifs throughout “Double” and return in the next act.
The third and final act of “Mozart Dances” was easily its most engaging. “Twenty-Seven” featured a group of 16 dancers and was set to “Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major.” Dancers transitioned from darker costumes in the first two acts to all-white attire in the last. Their pristine appearance, coupled with the airiness of the music, allowed for a particularly enthralling conclusion to the show. The choreography of “Twenty-Seven” brought a sense of romanticism and wistfulness to its narrative interpretation of Mozart, tying in some of the earlier movement motifs from the first two acts, while introducing enjoyable group movements. The final act also gave more individual stage time to the company dancers. While no performer received an extensive solo, many were given the opportunity to showcase their own styles and abilities within the constraints of the musical style.
While the dancers onstage were mesmerizing to watch, the show relied on the excellence of the orchestra in the stage pit to fulfill the premise of “Mozart Dances”: to capture the beauty and intricacies of Mozart’s compositions. With Inon Barnatan on piano and Colin Fowler conducting the Berkeley Symphony, the lively bold sounds of each piece emanated from the front of the stage and filled the hall with a sense of warmth and spirit.
Visually, “Mozart Dances” benefitted from the simplistic, brushstroked backdrop designed by scenic design veteran Howard Hodgkin, who passed away in 2017. Hodgkin created similar backdrops for other shows by the Mark Morris Dance Group in the past — memorably, 2016’s “Layla and Majnun” had a similar brushstroked scenic style. This, coupled with the soft, precise lighting work of James F. Ingalls, prohibited any extraneous distractions from the dancers’ performances. The stage appeared relatively uncomplicated, which makes it all the more important that our focus remains on the dynamic movements of the performers.
With its embrace of recurring visual cues and performance motifs, “Mozart Dances” created an enjoyable experience geared toward a broad range of audience members. In taking some of Mozart’s lesser-known works and reinterpreting them to build chemistry between artists and construct visual narratives, the show allowed members of the Mark Morris Dance Group to turn the Zellerbach stage into a source of pure delight.