I?m back, the polls are open, and the reviews are in for Mark Morris?s ?Rock of Ages,? given its world premiere at UC Berkeley?s Cal Performances last Thursday.
Bucking consensus, first by admiring ?Violet Cavern? and now by discounting the new work, the Chronicle?s Steve Winn writes:
?With “Rock of Ages,” the evening’s world premiere for four dancers, Morris is working in a smaller compass and a more muted, almost guarded way. It was not, on first viewing, an especially engaging effort.
Using Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-Flat, D. 987, the single-movement “Notturno,” as a score, Morris restricts most of the action to a focal point at center stage. There, paired off at first by twos and subsequently in different groupings, the dancers execute some slow, sweeping moves, then tuck their hands behind their backs and shoot quick glances up and away. They come and go separately, walking to and from the wings and darting more looks here and there. The music’s stately lyricism and trilling undertow never gain much traction as the dancers leave off, peel away, reassemble and try again. In the end, enigmatically, the dancers pace across the stage, cross in the middle and depart, their gaits slowing as the lights fade.
Four women — Amber Darragh, Rita Donahue, Julie Worden and Michelle Yard, costumed in deep blues, aquas and greens by Katherine McDowell — performed on opening night. By programming two women and two men on Friday and four men tonight, Morris may be signaling the minimalist mutability of the piece. “Rock” will be whatever the dancers and audiences project on it. That seems a challengingly bare facade.?
Meanwhile, straight-talking Stephanie von Buchau (a Bay Area critic whose work really should be available online more frequently) found ?Rock of Ages? redeeming:
?In this short work, excellently played from the left side of the stage by members of the Mark Morris Dance Group Ensemble (including pianist Benjamin Hochman coaxing “period” types noises out of an old Steinway), the four dancers are dressed in emerald and Prussian blue by designer Katherine McDowell. The movement is mostly soft and graceful, with the occasional cutting arm or stabbing foot. Some circular patterns are suggested — I always wish I could witness Morris’ dances simultaneously from above and the front — but the most interesting aspect of a first viewing was watching the way the entrances and exits are achieved. We’re always yapping about Morris’ “musicality” (which is why the ear-shattering “Violet Cavern” came as such a disagreeable shock), and part of that musicality includes knowing when to stop and when to start. By trusting the composer, sensibly not slavishly, Morris makes a work like “Rock of Ages” seem as inevitable as Schubert’s music. Just as a sequence seems to have worn itself out, another entrance refreshes the palate. The result is that — even with the simplest of gestures — the piece is over before you’ve begun to tire of it.?
And Allan Ulrich, making the most of the Internet?s lack of space limitations, gives a thorough explication of ?Rock of Ages?s? craft:
?Before the curtain rose on the world premiere of Mark Morris? Rock of Ages last Thursday (Oct. 28) at the University of California?s Zellerbach Hall, it was impossible to conceive of anyone making a legible dance from Schubert?s little-known Piano Trio in E-flat, D.897, a Notturno that is always overshadowed by this composer?s two formidable trios for the same instruments. At the end of the performance, it was impossible to imagine this score being choreographed by anyone else . . .
. . . The modest and entirely lovable Rock of Ages looks as if it had been conceived in a single burst of inspiration. The score?s structure, with the piano conveying the thematic substance for a heavenly Schubertian length before the violin and cello assume a more prominent role, exudes a kind of limpid drama. The modulation to E Major and the rising dynamic in the middle section, before the ensemble returns to its dreamy state, suggests an overflowing stream subsiding to its original proportions after a flash flood. Out of this, Morris has conceived a haunting little chamber piece for four dancers, who exemplify the yearning one finds constantly in this composer.?
I loved ?Rock of Ages,? as I wrote earlier. It had a mood of gentle fortitude, almost a hominess about it?and my perception of it will always be colored by that all-women premiere cast. One element not mentioned in the reviews: about two-thirds through the work, during another of the reluctant exits to the four corners of the stage, the house lights slowly rose. Discomfort and confusion registered in abundant coughs and fidgeting. And then slowly as the dancers reentered, the house lights dimmed. It was almost certainly part of the choreography, and in its self-consciousness as an ?effect,? it felt very un-Morris. If you have an interpretation of this house lights phenomenon, please do share it with me.