Vernal frolics

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 29, 2014
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The world premiere of a new evening-length ballet by Mark Morris is a big deal, and critics were in from as far away as New York for the opening night of Acis and Galatea in Berkeley at Zellerbach Hall, where Cal Performances not only presented it but had commissioned its creation (along with a consortium of other presenters). The problems that kept breaking the spell on opening night (Friday) melted away on Saturday, when the combination of baroque music, wonderfully played and gloriously sung by the world-famous Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, and limpid dancing by the Mark Morris Dance Group, drew you in and held the mind engaged in a delight so intense you hardly noticed the passage of time. My predecessor here, the late Stephanie von Buchau, considered a Mark Morris dance performance "a religious experience." I wish she had lived to see this.

The Acis is a river in Sicily, which according to the ancient poet Ovid rose from the blood of the shepherd Acis, beloved by the nymph Galatea, who transformed his bleeding corpse into the fountainhead of the stream after he was killed by the jealous monster Polyphemus, As a story, there's not much more to Acis and Galatea than there is to Bambi Meets Godzilla: once the fight starts, it's over. But the prelude to that fight is a fabulous pretext for a pastoral oratorio, with explorations of the changing moods of young lovers exquisitely drawn-out in arias, duets, choruses, outbursts of despair, love-longings. An outburst of flutes and clarinets in the orchestra depicts bird-song, which makes poor Galatea begin to burn with longing for Acis and cry out in despair. Baroque opera is the 18th-century version of the blues, except with more resources for developing the finer shades of "I've got it bad." This is just like the blues signer who can't stand the drip-drop of the rain. ("I'm bout to blow my top, I wish this rain would hurry up and stop!") One mood yields to another; our boy nearly loses his job for neglecting his sheep. Morris' dancers are hilarious as they pretend to be little lost sheep, or as they hang out to ask directions from a tenor who's got a very long flight of coloratura to finish before he can give him their attention, and they wander off again before he can finish his phrase.

The premise is, the four singers (two lovers, a confidante, and the monster) are onstage, and so are the dancers, who function as a silent chorus, and by their actions create a sympathetic environment. They echo the lovers, sympathize, warn, cajole, and deepen all the passions that occupy the principals, and they also illustrate and elaborate the feeling-tones created by the orchestra and musical chorus, "invisible" in the pit.

The English poet John Gay, who's most famous for The Beggar's Opera, wrote the excellent libretto (with the help of Alexander Pope, no less), which Georg Frideric Handel first set in 1718 as an oratorio and went on to revise many times for restagings in different venues, including a Tivoli-style amusement park with a fountain that figured in the denouement. It's considered perhaps the greatest pastoral opera ever composed, and has never fallen out of the rep. A very famous British production of 60 years ago starring Joan Sutherland ( will give you an idea �" especially since last week's soprano Sherezade Panthaki has a radiance in her upper register unsurpassed by Sutherland's, not to mention a willingness to move about the stage while singing that puts some of her purely vocal effects into jeopardy, but given her talent, generosity and game spirit, made us love her all the more.

Morris has choreographed the singers' moves as well as his dancers; on opening night, there was trouble for the singers, mostly because they could not sing out, they were moving so much. Damon, the confidante, has a beautiful voice and is brilliant in coloratura, but he could use a mike. The others all recovered by the second night. Acis (Thomas Cooley) fit into the movements just fine, and sang with heart-melting fervor.

Acis breaks into two halves, and the second is much less happy: "the course of true love never did run smooth." It begins with a haunting chorus, matched with eloquent melting choral dancing for the whole cast. Morris' power here is so strong, one can't help but reflect how the power of classical Greek tragedy lay in the choruses, who danced as well as sang.

Douglas Williams, the barihunk bass-baritone who sang the role of the preening macho thug Polyphemus, is a natural acrobat. The guy's a hunka hunka burning love, and enters borne aloft at the beginning of the second act by the MMDG dancers like a giant shot out of a cannon, kicking his legs out, landing and caught back up by the waves of dancers and re-launched, ready to sing, "I rage! I burn!" and act the part of the stalker who terrorizes Galatea and has more than enough muscle to rape her if it comes to that. The chorus responds to his aria, "O ruddier than the cherry, O sweeter than the berry, O nymph more bright, Than moonshine night, Like kidlings blithe and merry!" by making it clear he's a troll. He grabs at them, and they hate it, he pinches a cute boy's nipples as he sings about the cherry, and that cute boy collapses and dies. By the end of the aria, there's a whole heap of tricks he's kicked to the curb.

The greatest dance of the whole evening is a march in 3/4 time begun by the brilliant Laurel Lynch, who dances as Damon sings of his determination to fight the monster and save Galatea; he's doomed, of course, and the dancer knows it while the singer does not. The dancer is rigid in the upper body, like an Irish step-dancer. The lower body makes huge flashing gestures, with fan-kicks, but the torso is stiff as death; as the aria repeats, the solo woman is replaced by pairs of men who repeat the same dance holding hands. It finishes with them all linking hands and wheeling into place like a ridge in a mountain chain; they look like Brokeback Mountain.

The dancers wear lettuce-leaf skirts of green chiffon �" the men are bare-chested and magnificent, the women have modest torso-covering. But the skirts are always rolling and floating throughout the evening, no matter what steps the dancers take. So the overall effect of the dance is like water over rocks, like the Acis River in full flow. The outcroppings of momentary statuesque poses are beautiful, arresting, even haunting �" but nothing lasts for long, and it's all about the flow.

I could watch it again and again. A friend said she could watch it every night for the next two weeks and not be tired of it. Another, who's a poet, emailed me that "anytime dance (or anything else for that matter) reminds me of the pleasure of being in a body, it has done its job. I couldn't think of a better vernal frolic." I felt the same thing, and could not say it any better.