Cleft for Me
The Mark Morris Dance Group finished up two weeks of performances in Berkeley Saturday night with a mixed bill that included the world premiere of Rock of Ages, a brief, quiet, gleaming dance-for-four performed with different casts every night of the run—all women on Thursday, half men, half women Friday, and all men on Saturday. The piece is deeply beautiful, like its music, the little-known “Nocturne” in E-flat for piano trio by Franz Schubert. As soon as it was over, I wanted to see it again.
Indeed, after the first performance I saw (which was Fridays, the mixed couples), I had almost no idea what I had seen – I could remember a quality of light gleaming off a low extension, a deeply satisfying shade of blue, an abiding calm in the performers (especially the women, for whom it was not opening night) and a sumptuous depth to the movement. That and the way they left the stage at the end, which had an uncanny finality to it—first they left one at a time, and then all four criss-crossed the stage together and walked slowly off into the corners.
But I could remember nothing else in particular.
Saturday night, it stayed with me bette, though I still want to see it again (and not just because of this task; it seemed to slake a thirst.)
There are still a number of questions in my mind. First of all, why did he call it “Rock of Ages”? Not all readers of Danceview will recognize the title of this great old foursquare hymn, but I grew up on it: together with “The Old Rugged Cross,” it was THE great hymn of poor southern white folks, the core Bush constituency. With another bin Laden videotape in the news, and half the country thinking next Tuesday’s election is ABOUT the Rock of Ages (and fortifying the family, saving the unborn children defending the sanctity of marriage and the predominance of Christendom), it’s been hard to isolate what Mr. Morris may have intended here and not spin out on issues that a disciplined critic should be able to keep separate.
On the other hand, Mr. Morris has made some of his very best dances to down-home country music—“Shroud of White” being top of my list, but “Deck of Cards” and “Going-Away Party” come straight to mind, and they are all flat-out ABOUT the concerns of plain white folk. And in a very general way, the community that “Rock of Ages” reminds me of the most is “Dark Elegies.”
Well, that is, the heterosexual version. The version for all men kept reminding me of the soldiers in Paul Taylor’s “Sunset.” The partnering, in either case, has that quality of lending a hand, or giving you someone you can lean on, that Mr. Taylor used with the men—the dancers often plant themselves, and then bend in the torso—Joe Bowie in particular has a sumptuous back-bend (amplitude of 10 on a scale of 10) that comes back several times and is infinitely satisfying, though I can’t say why. There’s not much partnering—the dancers are not on their own, they’re aware of each other, but there’s not much they can do for each other. A phrase will often end with a dancer fallen to the floor – perhaps in arabesque, and that pose will tighten as the hip on the floor flexes and the leg in the air rises, the front arm reaching out as if to plead…. I don’t remember how Craig Biesecker got out of that, but I think he had to do it himself. And I’m almost certain that David Leventhal had just fallen on his face before that happened, somewhere upstage right.
Schubert’s music supports all this. It’s a theme and variations with a magnificent harmonic structure and almost no melody. (It was mis-identified in the program as the “Trio in E-flat,” which many people will know since Stanley Kubrick popularized it in the love scenes in his movie “Barry Lyndon.” If you DON’T know it, let me just say Kubrick knew what he’s up to, it leaves the “‘Elvira Madigan’ Piano Concerto” in the dust, get yourself a copy ASAP.)
For us in the Bay Area, “Rock of Ages” bears a considerable resemblance to another Morris ballet set to a Schubert Theme and Variations, the solo “Later” which he made as a gift for Joanna Berman to perform upon retiring from the stage (the “Impromptu in B-flat”). The pieces are roughly the same length—both dances are ambiguously melancholy, both involve soft movement with a rich fullness in the phrasing, deceptively simple-looking changes of direction, and an autumnal ripeness sustaining the movement, filling it to bursting. Leventhal begins the dance with a long-drawn-out soutenu turn—standing on both feet he wheels around slowly, leaning forward at the waist some thirty degrees—enormously difficult, though that’s not the point at all, that’s not it, at all. Like “Later,” this dance is NOT about display, it’s about privacy, intimacy, home truths.
Much of the dance could be thought of as moving sculpture. There is a fast section, but even that seems, especially when the men do it, like sculpture that happens in the air, especially a thrilling jump that slices sideways as it turns (though I have to say the women did it with exacting clarity as well, especially Amber Darragh, and Rita Donahue had glorious moments as well).
“Rock of Ages” came after the intermission, and after a pause was followed by “V,” the thrilling ballet set to Schumann’s “Piano Quintet” which we first saw here in 2001, just after American troops entered Afghanistan. Again, the grotesque funeral march which forms the second movement seemed uncannily apt, with the dancers falling to the floor and advancing like giant grasshoppers, or perhaps some kind of armored personnel vehicle designed to walk on mountainsides. The musicians for the Schubert and Schumann were superb -- they were Yosuke Kawasaki, violin; Ariane Lallemand, cello; Benjamin Hochman, piano; Jonathan Gandelsman, second violin; and Jessica Troy, viola.
The music, in fact, was first-rate all night. Before the intermission, members of the American Bach Soloists had sung the Monteverdi madrigals which accompany Morris’s “I don’t want to love,” which I found hard to pay attention to so I often watched the singers. There was a pause, and then members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra played Bach’s “Concerto for Oboe and Violin” to accompany the dancers in “Marble Halls, ” a thoroughly enjoyable setting of that score which does not rival “Concerto Barocco” or “Esplanade” while recalling both.* Or perhaps all I’m saying is that the audience was restless most of the evening, perhaps afraid of the outcome of next Tuesday’s elections. It certainly felt to me that something else was going on at the back of my mind, and insofar as the concert helped me understand what that was, it was the hauntingly ripe imagery of “Rock of Ages” which gave me the most consolation.
There was also the great pleasure of seeing Morris’ fantastic cadre of dancers, especially Lauren Grant, Marjorie Folkman, Bradon McDonald, David Leventhal, who unite a steady radiance out from the center (which I suppose is why great ballet dancers are called stars), with that softness and ability to enter the floor which makes modern dancers so human. In last week’s performance of “Mosaic and United,” the five dancers (Bowie, Grant, Leventhal, McDonald, and June Omura) gave performances which were mature at the highest levels—they owned the movement, and made it simultaneously mythical and personal.
*The Bach concerto was conducted by Robert Cole, who is the director of Cal Performances (which presented them). Soloists were Deborah Shidler, oboe, and Yosuke Kawasaki, violin.
And I should have said, the music was first-rate for the whole run. It was a joy to see Ethan Iverson, who used to be the Morris Group's music director, in the pit as the scrumptious pianist for the "breakaway jazz sensation" group, the Bad Plus, who played in the first week's program for the west-coast premiere of Mr Morris's "Violet Cavern" (which has already been much discussed by the New York press, so though I enjoyed it I won't say more).
Photos by Susane Millman.