The New York Times / Arts

Dance Review: An Old Love Story, Tinkered for the Times

In his two-act staging of “Acis and Galatea” at the David H. Koch Theater, Mark Morris plunges his audience into the heart of the pastoral genre. He sets the love story of the shepherd Acis and the sea nymph Galatea within a landscape chorally filled with lovers. Though, on the one hand, these other people are anonymous, it’s as if they were Daphnis and Chloe, Phyllis and Corydon, and all the amorous couples created by Theocritus, Virgil, Longus and other classical authors. On the other, it’s as if they were nature itself. And so Acis and Galatea — whose story is found in the “Metamorphoses” of Ovid — become part of a long tradition of the classical idyll in which love is interrupted by death.

This production, part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, had its premiere in Berkeley, Calif., in April, but now Mr. Morris and his colleagues — the conductor Nicholas McGegan and the designers Adrianne Lobel (set), Isaac Mizrahi (costumes) and Michael Chybowski (lighting) — have adjusted some vital details. Most important, Galatea, Acis and Acis’ friend Damon are now costumed in fabrics different from the dance ensemble, and Galatea and Damon are sung by Yulia Van Doren and Isaiah Bell, artists who have worked with Mr. Morris before. And in many subtler details, the staging, which opened here on Thursday, has either changed or simply settled. Though it still has flaws, those have become incidental: This “Acis” proves absorbing.

The 18th-century pastoral is a genre both simple and complex. In “The Classical Style,” the musician and writer Charles Rosen, asserting that the pastoral is “perhaps the most important literary form of the 18th century,” discusses its combination of sophisticated irony and surface innocence: “The rustics in pastoral speak words whose profundity is apparently beyond their grasp; the shepherds are not aware that their joys and sorrows are those of all men.” This artificial country simplicity, he observes, “speaks with a sharp nostalgia.”

“Acis and Galatea” illustrates his points in depth. The libretto for this two-act music drama is by John Gay, with contributions by Alexander Pope and John Hughes; the music is by Handel, though this production uses the later arrangement by Mozart. When the monster Polyphemus arrives in Act II — later to kill Acis in a jealous rage — he announces himself in a recitative and aria whose words “I rage, I melt, I burn ... O ruddier than the cherry,/O sweeter than the berry” are brilliantly lifted from a long speech he has in Ovid.


Mr. Morris illustrates Polyphemus with a marvelous mix of comedy and horror. The monster (the bass-baritone Douglas Williams, in a superbly incisive performance) and the dancing mortals who accompany him mime some of his words literally (“stabb’d me to the heart”), treat others metaphorically (“my capacious mouth” becomes a demonstration of priapic pride), and turn his aria’s first verse into a casually appalling depiction of ritual abuse, groping both women and men and then tossing them away. Later, the huge rock he hurls to destroy Acis is a female dancer, curled in a ball and passed right across the stage, spinning in a riveting slow-motion arc. (Other dancers turn their heads in dismay as they see in advance where this boulder will land.)

Mr. Morris loves to tie dance motifs to specific words. So in the opening chorus of this “Acis,” we recognize how the first line, “Oh, the pleasure of the plains!,” prompts one motif for “pleasure” (a sideways extension of one leg, with a jump) and another for “plains” (a more full-stretched jump, in which both arms and legs are spread wide but calmly sloping down). Those two motifs repeat; they come round in the work’s closing chorus (though the “plains” leg-extension is no longer accompanied by a jump).

These nymphs and shepherds depict a realm of love in terms of recurrent motifs, virtually constructing various aspects of erotic rapture. Act I faintly foreshadows the tragedy to follow: Acis (played by the tenor Thomas Cooley, with sweet tone and fine diction) breaks one male-female couple apart in the same manner that Polyphemus will sunder him and Galatea — and one of the choral motifs is that of death.

This intense artfulness is perfect for the pastoral. So are Ms. Lobel’s sets (semiabstract landscape paintings, suggesting a rural scene faintly stained by blood and later enriched by an overlay of Cézanne colors) and Mr. Mizrahi’s costumes for the dancers, which evoke various Ballets Russes idylls designed by Leon Bakst. Though Mr. Mizrahi still attires Acis dully, the title characters are no longer embarrassing, and the four solo singers deport themselves onstage with pleasant dignity.

After Acis’ death, Ms. Van Doren successfully commands our attention as she sings Galatea’s lament in an empty and darkened stage; side lighting picks her out as if against a void. But this is the aria where the drama moves beyond tragedy: The nymph-goddess transforms her dead lover into a fountain whose stream will renew both the pleasures and the plains of the landscape.

Then, in the closing chorus, Mr. Morris shows us Acis as a motionlessly statuesque river deity, crowned and robed, but also suggesting the open-palmed stance of the martyr whose sufferings have been for others. In the foreground the dancers, symmetrically appearing in successive pairs until they fill the stage, show how the stream grows into a river. Polyphemus, Damon and Galatea join them onstage and complete their symmetry in a full-stage closing tableau.

The finest choreography occurs in Act II’s opening chorus (“Wretched lovers”), telling us how the idyll will end. First, 15 dancers become five multiples of the Acis-Galatea-Polyphemus triangle; then all the work’s 16 dancers became four abstractions of Polyphemus’ monstrosity. Mr. Morris’s gifts for imagination, cartoon fun and poetry lyrically blend here.

Mr. McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale reveal all the textures with which Mozart enriches Handel (those clarinets!) and deepens the sophistication underlying the pastoral. Ms. Van Doren and Mr. Bell are welcome additions to the cast. The superlative charm of the Morris dancers — their companionable courtesy to the singers is touching — is that of the pastoral itself, simple and complex, tender and witty. Though Mr. Morris’s staging has its wiseguy moments and schematic aspects, they melt away into a large-spirited drama of innocence, pathos, metamorphosis and transcendence.


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Dance Review: An Old Love Story, Tinkered for the Times


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