Mark Morris Dance Group, Bam Opera House, December 9-17, 1995.
Some of Mark Morris's recent work had me worried that he was beginning to lose his touch. Commissions for various ballet companies were very good by anyone else's standards, but they weren't the kind of brilliant, revelatory work I expect from him. O ye of little faith. As his winter repertory season reminded me, if you aren't seeing the Mark Morris company, you aren't seeing Mark Morris. Whole layers of subtlety--subtleties of gesture, rhythm, feeling--drop out of his art without the instrument he's fashioned to convey them. How ironic that these superb performers are still known mainly for "looking like people instead of dancers." In our age of kick-leap-spin virtuosity, Morris's company operates at a level of sophistication most dancers don't even seem to be aware of. So too, if people don't always see just how far Morris is above every other choreographer working today (always excepting the indomitable Merce), it may be because he works with elements that have been abandoned by most of the rest of the dance world for so long that they're hardly recognizable anymore. Things like music, and meaning,
In Somebody's Coming to See Me Tonight, a sweet and delicate work set to the Victorian-era songs of Stephen Foster, Morris returns to the kind of thing he's done several times with country and western music. Taking material that seems frozen in sentimentality, he reawakens the true feeling that lies within it--not by creating a period piece, but by staging his own direct, unembarrassed responses. Morris is at his best when most intimately in contact with a second imagination, locating his feelings by feeling through another. Such dialogue is a key to his classicism, and probably one of the reasons he is so drawn to vocal music.
Speaking of classicism, though, I have to confess that the larger dimensions of the work eluded me the first time, so enraptured was I by the beauty of its structures. Aside from the usual--immaculate symmetry, infallible tact, clarity and complexity in symbiotic accord--I was struck by the way Morris creates dramatic form by playing with expectation and memory. The title song gives us two male-female couples and one gay couple in a succession of increasingly close embraces, the two men always meeting last. Each time, and especially the last time, when they kiss, we can see what's coming well in advance. Titters skim across the audience, but Morris makes us sit still and watch the moment through the men's own eyes. And then he goes one better, delaying the kiss just a hair: same-sex lovers in public are as self-conscious as the people watching them. Every half-beat, he's teaching us something new.
The Foster was followed on one of the two programs 6y A Spell, in which Morris plays a floppy, insouciant fairy costing love charms on two equally fleshy mortals. The frankly carnal piece is danced to John Wilson's settings of Shakespearean songs: Morris is plunging us straight from romantic love into the bawdy sensuality of the Elizabethans, widening our liberty in the opposite direction with another foray into the history of passion. What's incredible about Morris's appropriations is how utterly unselfconscious they are. At one point in A Spell he sets each of the lovers aside in turn so that he can have his own little feast on the ample delights--all the delights--of both. That's exactly how he treats artistic tradition, too.
Morris's dancing, like his choreography, has the uncanny quality of looking 6oth completely natural and completely right. Large, loose movements resolve, without apparent thought, into what you realize an instant after was a perfect position hit at the perfect moment. In Rondo, a solo set to Mozart, Morris suggests a sad and lonely little boy, but the dance is really a brilliant exercise in music visualization. Morris catches not only tempi and accents, but also moods, impulses, ironies. The more carefully you listen, the more you see; the more carefully you watch, the more you hear.
The authenticity of Morris's religious feeling is proved by its range. Gloria, that early masterpiece, is about the ways people reach toward God in the workaday world. Jesu, Meine Freude (to Bach) sets us within the shelter of the church. All is serene and simple, at once intensely personal and mercifully impersonal. Inwardly turned gestures and an almost trancelike focus place each dancer within a private sphere of attention ("Jesus, my joy"), but their plain white garments and the choreography's larger patterns deemphasize individuality. Jesu is about that state in which one sheds one's personality in joyful union with God. Yet, though the experience is irreducibly solitary, it is achieved within a blessed community that together composes a larger picture.
Community remains Morris's essential subject, though he is no more sanguine about its viability in the here and now than is anyone else. The Office (to Dvorak), originally created for the Zivili Balkan folk dance troupe [see Reviews/National, August, 1994, page 59], shows a group of people being torn apart by forces connected in some way to an inscrutable bureaucracy. One by one the dancers are called off--to God knows what fate--by a creepily efficient clerk. Each is eager to get the hell away from where they are, but also humiliated to be abandoning the others. Each time, the others return to an increasingly frenetic, desperately single-minded folk dancing--until, that is, only one remains. To say that The Office is about Bosnia is like saying that Kafka's novels are about Prague. The work is political art, not arty politics.
World Power (to Lou Harrison) is also great political art. This time "community" takes the shape of homogenized populations caught in the death machine of modern imperialism: the natives who are slaughtered by it, the troops who do the slaughtering, the consumers for whom the slaughtering is done. Repetition and massing strip away individual identity; wide positions and blunt rhythms develop an impression of inexorable power.
Two images have buried themselves in my brain. One is of bodies falling, half out of the wings, as if dead: falling as if flung; falling not into pretty theatrical death poses, but with twisted necks and glassy eyes. The other, the work's central tableau, is a hideous jiggling of head and outstretched hand--a combination of nastiness, arrogance, and greed that refers, above all, to the vibrations of a soldier firing a machine gun. This is the kind of material about which we scarcely have the right to speak. Only an artist of Morris's integrity, and only performers of his ensemble's maturity, possess the seriousness to do it justice.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 1996|
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