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The great Merce Cunningham once titled one of his works How To Kick, Pass, Fall and Run. Well, I'm not so sure about kicking and passing (unless you have a football handy), but falling and running are essential to a choreographer's art, as are walking, jumping, hopping, and sometimes standing still. But all these specific and, significantly, natural movements are today the building blocks that assist choreographers in their dance architecture. And it is these same building blocks that play such a potent role in the dance-making of that modern master, Mark Morris.

The overruling kinetic theme of his work is complexity presented through simplicity. But simple for Morris is rarely as simple as all that; he's a master of implication and suggestion. He has made a deep and ongoing exploration of natural movement's role in theatrical dance. Classical ballet is one of the most unnatural--in terms of the human body--of all the theatrical arts. It makes exquisite, seemingly impossible demands upon its practitioners. I love the expertise, artistry, and emotion that can be expressed by something so superficially artificial. Yet dance has another face, if not another body.

It was Isadora Duncan who first realized the theatrical possibilities of incorporating natural movement into dance; this heightened naturalism can be seen in all the various photos and drawings of her in rhapsodic action. I think it can also be glimpsed in that marvelous solo Frederick Ashton made for Lynn Seymour, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. The impact of Isadora, both as mother of modern dance and a most powerful influence on classical ballet, cannot be overstated.

That influence was at first musical--choreographer Michel Fokine was fascinated to note that Isadora would dance to a Beethoven symphony--yet it seems to me it was the neoclassicists who, perhaps subliminally, absorbed the unforced naturalism of Duncan most profoundly. I don't believe, for instance, that Ashton's Symphonic Variations (just revived by American Ballet Theatre) or even George Balanchine's Concerto Barocco would have been the same without the underlying influence of Duncan's approach to movement. Which brings me back to Morris.

There is an increasingly fine line nowadays between some modern dance and classical ballet. We can look here at Twyla Tharp or Morris, or in certain quite specific ways and means, Cunningham, and even--and he'll hate me for this--classical ballet's classy enemy, Paul Taylor. I don't think this is because modern dance has become like ballet, but because ballet has become like modern dance. And Morris, trained as a classical dancer, seems to me to be the perfect bridge.

For quite a few years Morris has seemed a major talent of extraordinarily variable functioning. And sometimes, even at his best, he walks a narrow line between the sublime and the ridiculous; between, if you like, art and art's Iago-like friend, camp. He is, like most good choreographers, extraordinarily prolific, and in some lesser works he seemed to be tied down to the metric measure of the music, eschewing the finer possibilities of dance rubato and even internal cross-rhythms. Yet he is usually deft in matching the mood of the music, always showing marked architectonic invention with his exits and entrances.

Morris's dances at their best are essentially expressionistic and humanistic. His style is a playful exploitation of the human body and human movement inextricably linked to music. Obviously a modern dance choreographer, he may be the only major choreographer to follow, possibly without realizing it, in Ashton's elusive footsteps. Other than Ashton, Morris is surely the only choreographer who also might have created that Duncan solo for Seymour, or Monotones.

What is now so marvelous about Morris is the natural informality of his vision, with everything springing organically from the music. As his career has progressed, his sense of structure--which recently reached a new peak in his exquisitely conceived piece to a Schumann quintet, V--has become more and more sophisticated. Yet the kinetic threads and lines forming that structure rarely stray from stylized, though often exaggerated, ordinary human movement.

So often when we watch Morris we get a cozy feeling that if only we were as well trained, prescient, nimble, and clever as those dancers, we could do that. That is not the feeling we get watching someone do fouettes or double assembles. I am obviously not knocking classical ballet here--I take unholy joy watching those turns and jumps. But there are certain Children of Duncan (and here I'm thinking particularly of Morris and Taylor) who with the unfeigned human quality of their dances make me, in Shakespeare's words, ponder "what a piece of work is man."

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to DANCE MAGAZINE since 1956.
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Title Annotation:the work of choreographer Mark Morris
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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