Dance Treats From Mark Morris
The off-beat choreographer and his glorious company demonstrate peak form in Boston
IF Mark Morris were an architect, his structures would be beautiful classical compositions - with a gargoyle or grotesque jutting from the cornices for comic effect.
This builder of dances adores classical composers: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. His dances have a precision and light-footed delicacy gleaned from their musical sources, but they are not pretty in the way of a "Swan Lake" or "Giselle." Just when a dance begins to have the smoothness of ballet, Mr. Morris throws in a burp of movement or a convulsion of ecstasy that is distinctly unballetic.
Morris has brought this love of music allied with humor to Boston's Emerson Majestic Theatre, where last week his company performed two world premieres and tomorrow night finishes up with a program choreographed to a grab bag of 20th-century music: the Louvin Brothers, the Violent Femmes, and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. (Morris may be a classicist, but his taste is eclectic.)
His new solo piece, danced to George Gershwin's "Three Piano Preludes," highlights his versatility both as a choreographer and a performer. Dressed in a tuxedo-like outfit, with spats and white gloves, Morris captures the "wah wah wah" flapper quality of 1930s music. As in all his dances, the hands are the key component in his movements. He used them in "Three Preludes" to punctuate gestures like a mime: uncurling his fists, flicking his wrist, and flinging his arms.
The choreographer's physique is, to put it bluntly, heftier than most male dancers', and he gleefully cashes in on that distinction by making dances that lean slightly off-center, or have a lower center of gravity. (Morris apparently considers most young ballerinas as too thin, and his company is cheerfully composed of tall and short, average-weight dancers of both sexes who are strong enough to lift one another easily.) His trademark long hair, which usually waves around his face Medusa-like, was pulled
back for the Gershwin incarnation.
One of the things Morris became accustomed to during his sojourn in Brussels (see accompanying article) was live music. For the classical-music segment of the Boston performance, Morris enlisted his musical director, pianist Linda Dowdell, and conductor Craig Smith's locally based Emmanuel Music group.
Because of the high cost of hiring musicians, it is unusual for a dance troupe to perform to live music. It is even more unusual for a choreographer to use choral music as his centerpiece, as Morris does. There is no sound to compare to the unamplified voices of some of New England's finest singers, reaching into every corner and crevice of the theater. Mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt led the way, and her singing was so passionate and involving that it was hard not to steal a glance at her on the side, while
keeping up with the dancing onstage.
With live music there is always an improvisational climate; the performers' moods subtly color the rhythm and tempo. Morris clearly counts on this element to keep each dance fresh and interesting, for himself as well as the audience. It is easy to imagine that opening-night energy infused the second world premiere, titled "Bedtime" and set to three songs by Franz Schubert, with even more intensity than was choreographed into it.
The Schubert dances tell of sleep, from the prayers for a good night to the nightmares of childhood. Morris uses the clipped sounds of the German lyrics to inspire movement with a clock-like intricacy, like a glockenspiel. The tick-tock quality seems to emphasize how long the night seems to children, and occasionally, how menacing. There were relieving moments of camp, as when an Angst-ridden Morris paraded through rows of dancers like some crazed sandman.
If the first program was characterized by lyric dancing and fine classical music, Program B showed a darker side to Morris's choreography. In order to keep costs down and not have to hire the orchestra for a second week, this program was set entirely to taped music. It began with "Songs That Tell a Story," danced to country gospel songs of the Louvin Brothers. Three dancers in Levis and blue work shirts pranced around like hayseeds on the loose, poking fun at religious frenzy from the Bible belt. The pie ce was cute, but not particularly funny or tongue-in-cheek enough to work effectively. The literal acting out of the songs became too predictable.
More interesting, and troubling, was Morris's controversial "Lovey" - a set of punk gyrations to five antisocial tunes by the Violent Femmes. "Lovey" is disturbing, both to watch and to think about later. The dancers, dressed like children in nightgowns, boxer shorts, bathrobes, and underwear, act out sexual situations and violence with a collection of dolls. The images are alternately pathetic, harrowing, and creepy. It is clear that these children are looking for love and parenting, for a family, but t hey are used and cast off like the dolls they carry. Of course, the widely expounded theory about abuse is that such children go on to continue the cycle, harming their own children. Morris movingly conveys the tragedy of lost innocence without moralizing about it. "Lovey" is an altogether riveting, and disquieting, work.
In contrast with the jarring Violent Femmes, Morris included his piece danced to silence, "Behemoth." In "Star Trek"-style costumes, the entire company moved like a strange lumbering beast.
The company closed with the crowd-pleasing "Going Away Party," the Western swing number to music by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Here the dancers polka'd, swaggered, and promenaded with abandon. In a move that crossed Elvis Presley with John Wayne, they turned the reach-for-your-gun-pardner stance into a hip-swiveling sexual taunt.
With these two programs, Mark Morris and his company show they are clearly at peak form. Morris skips right to the fun, cutting through the niceties like a partygoer passing up dinner to get to the dessert table. He is comfortable with his own style and proclivities, and has grown beyond the flagrant urge to flake out. Maturity is not really the word, because Morris still retains that childlike (and often childish) mischieveousness, but his new work is surer and more satisfying.