Mark Morris dance group.
All of these were deft and carefully performed dance entertainments. Morris has already learned that any gesture--any subject matter--can work to any music, as long as the rhythmic context seems right. O Rangasayee, for example, is built up serially in two dimensions--pattern and emotion. Each verse of the song is a bit more ornamented than the previous one, and following the changes gives intellectual pleasure. Meanwhile the larger dynamic is from calm to frenzy. As with much of his work, Morris begins by setting out the basic movements of the piece, in this case poses that evoke both ancient Indian sculpture and famous dance photographs from the early part of this century. Many of the poses could, in another context, by coarse or erotic--a glance over a cocked shoulder, a waggling head and so forth--but here they are clearly to be seen as part of a larger process and so the lack of emphasis on any individual moment endows them all with innocence. When, at last, Morris lies on his back, sweating and spent, and rubs the blush on his hands along his naked stomach, the moment is as shameless as if the dancer were a child or an animal. I know of no other male dancer who could bring off this exact primeval tone.
In the Roland Barthes piece, Morris attempts to plunge us into violent action and to withdraw us stainlessly. The conceit is a bout of professional wrestling where, as in a superhero TV show, he uses slow motion to indicate heroic effort. (Barthes called such effort "emotional magniloquence.") At one point, one wrestler slugs another, and the victim, manipulated by her team, is converted on the recoil from a loser into an acrobat of God: the punch drives her into breathtaking lifts and a long somersault, thanks to her supporters, who become anonymous, machinelike as they act, in the manner of Japanese stagehands. The physical beauty of the sequence seems to serve a moral point about violence and delight, namely that they can be successfully linked only in a comic world. Roland Barthes is a kind of retort of Twyla Tharp's Fait Accompli, with its boxing imagery and dark romanticism.
Indeed, its occasionally flagrant camp notwithstanding, Morris's work is less likely to err in the direction of sensual display that that of didacticism. Every so often, one glimpses the moralist behind the dance ("See, men can be lyric and vulnerable, women can be bellicose and unforgiving") and it's as if someone spikes an eggnog with cod-liver oil. I do understand that controlled doses of principle help to establish a point of view. In interviews, Morris has stated his desire to be "a master"--but he also specifies terms. After years in New York City trying to make ends meet as a performer (with Eliot Feld, Lar Lubovitch, Hannah Kahn) and then as a choreographer, he moved back to Seattle; now he makes only occasional ventures to New York. He also emphasized, both in his choreography and his public remarks, that he's gay and a feminist. There's no reason that Morris's convictions should be of less help to him than, say, cynicism is to Tharp or nihilism is to Paul Taylor. They just shouldn't get in the way of his dances.