26 November 1989: In the unlikely setting of a grand European opera house, the Mark Morris Dance Group premiered L’Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato. This full-evening’s work was performed to a score composed by Handel in 1740, and danced by an avant-garde group of Americans. Until the previous year the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels had been the home base of Maurice Bejart’s Ballet of the Twentieth Century. His removal, after nearly three decades, and his replacement by this group of unconventional Yanks, caused something of a national scandal, which was further fired by Morris’s own flamboyant and frank personality.
Yet, when Morris began producing opera house-scale works of magnificent form and streamlined grandeur even his critics found it difficult to deny that, despite his brazen personal grandstanding, Morris seemed to be leading dance into a fertile new realm. L’Allegro became one of the most popular and artistically successful creations of the late-twentieth century. When you add in Dido and Aeneas (later that same year) and his version of The Nutcracker, which he dubbed The Hard Nut (1991), it became clear that Morris was fulfilling – even as he was busy subverting – his establishment-friendly brief. He was fusing American modern dance and European opera-house aesthetics. There was abrasion on both sides, of course. There still is. But who could have predicted that Morris’s approach would prove so robustly popular with all types of audiences.
Without Morris and his high-profile residency in Brussels (1988-1991), the cross-fertilisation of dance styles, which has been one of the hallmarks of dance around the world over the past decade, would have taken a different, probably less vivid path. In Britain, choreographer Matthew Bourne strongly benefited from Morris’s lead. Bourne’s version of Swan Lake, with Adam Cooper as the Swan, was originally produced at Sadler’s Wells in 1995, it went on to play in the West End, where it racked up a record as the longest-running dance production in London’s history. It transferred to Broadway, where Bourne won a Tony Award for choreography and another for best musical. The show continues to tour internationally. Before Swan Lake, Bourne also produced his own versions of The Nutcracker (1992) and La Sylphide, which he titled Highland Fling (1994). These were followed by a version of Cinderella set during the London blitz (1997) and a film noir-influenced staging of Carmen called The Car Man (2000).
Morris has been commissioned to stage a full-length Sylvia for San Francisco Ballet in 2004. First performed at the Paris Opera, Sylvia was composed in 1876 by Leo Delibes (who also wrote Coppelia). Swedish choreographer Mats Ek has staged his own idiosyncratic versions of Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty as well as a one-act version of Carmen which the Royal Ballet has added to its repertory. Many of today’s modern choreographers are turning to yesterday’s ballet scores as a fertile field for reinventing and reinvigorating their own dance styles. Angelin Preljocaj and Michael Clark are among the choreographers who have employed several scores commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes (1909-29) to re-examine the past with new eyes. Maguy Marin has set Coppelia in a modern tower block.
Morris, and other contemporary choreographers such as Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker have all staged — rather than simply choreographed — operas. Meredith Monk has actually composed, directed and choreographed several; notably The Games (premiered in Berlin, 1983) and Atlas (1991).
It is easy to forget the rabid divisiveness that once existed between modern dance and classical ballet. Back in 1962, Paul Taylor was castigated by other modernists when he chose to use a selection of Handel’s airs for Aureole. Virtually every piece of Martha Graham’s choreography featured a commissioned score, Merce Cunningham’s iconoclastic artistic partnership with composer John Cage is legend, and the then-young Judson Dance Theatre choreographers like Brown and Childs often favoured no score at all.
Of course, today’s musically-based choreography continues to be counterpointed by many others, particularly those works which can be categorised as dance theatre. Here, structure and steps are replaced by intuition and individualistic movement investigation.
Twyla Tharp, who was one of the first to fuse ballet and contemporary dance, once said that her definition of a classic is a work which remains viable even when performed by a new cast. This is something that the dance-theatre genre — so utterly dependent on the personalities who create it — often can not sustain. Try to picture Cafe Muller without Pina Bausch or DV8 Physical Theatre’s Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men without its original (and only) cast of Lloyd Newson, Nigel Charnock and Russell Maliphant. The result would dwindle in significance and, like many other dance-theatre productions, lose much of its initial impact.
Both these poles of choreographic creativity, and the variety of gradations which reside in between, are viable. Each has its advantages. The fact that dance creators and dance audiences are now willing and able to embrace such a wide spectrum is a benefit to us all.