Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and Sarasota Ballet
The Trilogy: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“Wolfgang for Webb”
“Amadeus for Anita”
Choreography: Dominic Walsh
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Zilkha Hall, Houston
April 30, 2009-May 2, 2009
Photo: Frank Atura.
Perhaps the most difficult works to approach are the most familiar. How much easier it is to stage an unknown Shakespeare than, say, Hamlet. And so it goes with Mozart and choreographers. How to shape movement to music now so familiar we use it to sell cars? On the other hand, who hasn’t choreographed Mozart? The sheer popularity and profitability of Mark Morris alone indicates that a modern face easily can be put on classical music. When Dominic Walsh tackled the challenge of Mozart, he brought reinforcements. “Trilogy,” a suite of three interrelated pieces conceived of in collaboration with the Sarasota Ballet, came to Houston after its debut in Florida. If the challenge of choreographing Mozart is to create singularity while avoiding kitsch, we could say that Walsh’s “Trilogy” achieved some small but singular successes while straying a little too often into kitsch.
“Trilogy” begins obliquely, in an odd, alien landscape of icy formations. The lighting, gently from above and from beneath a series of icebergs, was here and throughout pitch perfect. We see the silhouettes of five men breathing with their whole bodies as the sound of a cold wind fills the stadium. Their arms and fingers tense, shifting abruptly into the shape of claws suggestive of an eagle or hawk (a shape that would echo, sometimes painfully, throughout the night). From beneath an expansive piece of white fabric covering much of the stage, limbs and bodies began to emerge. Sheets of snow began to resemble evening gowns, and we wonder if what emerges, called forth by the soaring tones of Mozart, is animal or sublime. At least until the sound track went woefully wrong and began repeating itself before stopping entirely.
Unperturbed, the elegant and attentive Domenico Luciano took center stage; rarely throughout the night did he relinquish it. As the central spoke of this sometimes madly wheeling performance, as voyeuristic observer, or as Mozart’s stand-in, Luciano clearly served as Walsh’s muse. And while his considerable talent and expansive limbs provide a strong foundation for “Trilogy,” he was perhaps too often the center of all things on the stage. Given DWDT’s shortage of men and the stirring performances of Sarasota Ballet’s Simon Mummé, Logan Learned, and David Nava among others, a little sharing might have gone a long way. Still, many of the most compelling moments radiated from Luciano. Particularly moving were his quieter duets—full of oblique and intimate movement—with Sarasota Ballet’s Lauren Strongin and DWDT’s Lauren Bettencourt. Similarly, at a late, low-lit moment, Luciano and Sarasota Ballet’s Danielle Rae Brown exchanged glances and caresses, leaving behind some paint. More might have been made of this wonderfully odd marking one of body’s transit over another.
The oddly avian, Antarctic opening was initially a surprising strategy. How to deal with the iconic Mozart? Remove him entirely from the world of classical Vienna. These gestures quickly became mannerist, as if the dancers had suffered torture by yoga. And what entered soon after, and would also echo throughout the night, was an orgy of classical kitsch. The men entered in fussy long-tailed coats and the women seemed ready for a can-can. Here, “Trilogy” lapsed into Viennese kitsch, which was meant to be funny but felt needlessly artificial. Then, too, an overly literal relationship to the music took charge. The point, it seems, is not to force the dancers to move in concert with the rhythms and tempos of Mozart’s ornate compositions—as when a coloratura passage from The Magic Flute inspired a frenzy of twitching. How much more interesting, for instance, is Jorma Elo’s virtuosic Plan to B, in which the frenzied contortions of the dancers provides a perfect counterpoint to the drawn out, glacial tempos of Henrich Ignaz Biber’s organ compositions. Tension is the key to such success, and the more Mozartian moments of “Trilogy” lacked sufficient dramatic and musical tension.
The one moment the Viennese trappings were worth their weight in gold took place just as they were shed. Late in the third section, a frame posing as a mirror descended from the flies to hover over a dressing table and chair. In it, Sarasota Ballet’s Kate Honea, who had just come in from what seemed like an interlude of “classical coquettes gone wild,” sits and stares, horrified, in the mirror during the prolonged stripping of her gown and other trappings. What’s left beneath is a vulnerable body, ready to return to the shivering landscape of the opening movement. Less is more, Walsh teaches us, and it’s a dictum he might have kept in mind in many of these individual movements and more globally, as the excessive selections of Mozart began to bleed into to one another.
As the bodies on stage wore less and less, they transformed into haunting silhouettes beneath the virtuosic lighting designs of Robert Eubanks and consequently more compelling. Mozart’s Requiem predictably occasioned frenzied emoting (and more than a whisper of overacted madness). But as the sheet of white fabric passed again over more of the bodies, engulfing them, it became clear that in spite of many missteps Walsh catches sight of somewhere spare and sublime, where a minimalist Mozart glimmers in an icy landscape that, like a magic mirror, reflects back what its viewer most desires.