and the Synthetic
Fours and Violet Cavern
Mark Morris Dance Group
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
Brooklyn Academy of Music
June 8, 10-12, 2004
© 2004 by Nancy Dalva
America. The Mark Morris Dance Group played the Brooklyn Academy of Music
this week, up against the 24/7 television coverage of the state funeral
of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the national optimist. Meanwhile, some of us
were in a Georgia state of mind, and heart.
“He’s called a genius because no one could confine him to
one genre, ” Joe Levy, the music editor of Rolling Stone, said
of Ray Charles in a front page obituary in the New York Times. He might
have been talking about Mark Morris, a utopianist of pan-musical taste.
It’s a commonplace now to speak of Morris as a musical choreographer
or a music visualist, and not uncommon to compare him to George Balanchine.
But this latter comparison begs the case of—or pleads the wrong
case for—Morris, whose catholicity extends not only to music, but
also to movement. (Balanchine was a classicist, albeit with balleticized
reference to the occasional vernacular; for instance, to folk dances already
common to the divertissements sections of classical ballet; to waltzing;
and, once, to square dancing). Morris is a true polyglot, the dog’s
dinner of choreographers, and often the dog dines enviably. Morris's taste
in music runs through and outside the classical music canon, and his choreographic
tent recalls the Rainbow Coalition days of the Democratic Party. Over
here, sign language. Over there, yoga. Over by the barre, a perfect third
position, straight from ballet class. Over by the bar, a polka. His is
a dance politics of inclusion. What’s that if not optimistic? And
what’s Morris if not a great communicator?
His company gave us two new dances, both in modern dress, in fairly
simple settings, and mostly darkish light, which is all too typical of
Morris lately. All that gloom. All Fours was new to New York,
Violet Cavern is new to the world. Side by side, they showed
that Morris can get away with anything and everything in movement, but
that he is never better than his music. I’ve
loved his choreography all over the musical map, but perhaps best when
his own aesthetic exists in some tension with his scores, such as when
his post modernism is at play with the baroque; or his temperament is
in some vital relationship with the composer, as with his near contemporary,
Lou Harrison. And, no less, when he has some text with which to play,
so that his choreography transpires as imagery. There have been many such
dances, many such correspondences.
And one of the most complete and compelling is the first of the works
on the BAM program. All Fours is set to Bela Bartok’s String
Quartet No. 4. The parallels between the Bartok and the Morris are many,
and clearly elucidated. In the process, the choreographer sets the work
in a movement context which gives it the feel of a dance made at the time
of the music, or just after. The work is not so much dated as dateless.
Bartok’s dates are 1881-1945, which made him a just slightly older
contemporary of Martha Graham, born in 1894, and of Paul Hindemith, born
in 1895. Might not this synchronicity account for the repeated supplicatory
gesture (grasped hands raised to heaven on angled arms) that seems to
spring straight from Graham? And might it also not account for the interesting
relationship, suggested of course by the title, that the work has to Balanchine’s
Four Temperaments (1946), set to Hindemith?
The Morris work is, like the Balanchine, a statement of Moderism, a form
that we can roughly date to the middle of the last century. It is also,
in the usual Morris manner, a statement of post-modernism. This last is
evident mostly in the typical Morris casting that, as ever, pairs male
with male, male with female, and female with female. There used to be
all types of each gender as well—skinny, short, husky, and so forth—though
of late Morris has (and who can blame him?) succumbed to the siren call
of virtuosic youth when replacing the idiosyncratic early dancers in his
“Isn’t that getting old,” someone asked afterwards about
the now clichéd post-modern variations on coupling? But one only
had to look at the various couples in the audience, and their obvious
pleasure in regarding an art that was, without any translation from the
metaphorical, about them, to know the answer to that is “No.”
People want their dance to speak their love’s name plain, and Morris
For the rest, Morris strictly investigates and echoes the Bartok, most
obviously on three fronts: overarching structure, which indeed takes the
overall shape of an arch; introduction of voices, in which Morris echoes
the canons Bartok deploys again and again; and a duplication of the personnel
of the string quartet itself, signaled by a central quartet introduced
in silhouette, as if we were seeing the musicians themselves. (As you
could, if you looked in the pit, see four excellent members of the Mark
Morris Music Ensemble: violinists Jonathan Gandelsman and Andrea Schultz,
violist Jessica Troy, and cellist Wolfram Koessel.) This central quartet
of dancers is bolstered by a chorus of two additional groups of four,
which combine to mimic the music’s arc. (I am here indebted to Michael
Ladd, for his essay called “Formal Considerations in Bela Bartok’s
Fourth String Quartet.”)
It’s possible that there are many other fours in All Fours.
I couldn’t count the score in fours when I tried—I kept hearing
sevens—but Morris certainly is clever enough to, if he so desired.
He also may have repeated key motifs, such as the one he closed with,
a dancer standing on the thighs of her partner like a figurehead cantilevered
from a ship—four times. I’d have go again and count to be
sure. The work offers much pleasure and beauty to the arm chair deconstructionist,
whose immediate desire upon seeing it is to see it again.
also follows Bartok’s melodic suggestions, and, in fact, makes those
suggestions clearly visible. To see the dance is indeed to hear the music.
And vice versa. Most obvious here would be the echo of the folk element
in the Bartok, but there is also an overarching (if one can carry on that
structural theme) philosophical congruity, as well. To wit, Morris treats
steps the way Bartok treats notes: with utopian even-mindedness. In The
Music of Bela Bartok (Yale University Press, 1992), Paul Wilson wrote
of Bartok’s freeing himself from “the tyrannical rule of the
major and minor keys, leading eventually to a new conception of the chromatic
scale, every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could
be used freely and independently.”
All this could be said of Morris and movement. He freely and independently
uses steps, gestures, positions, and so forth without regard to category
or type. And yet it might also be said of Morris that with all his plainspoken
grandeur, he’s nonetheless the servant of the gimmick. That gimmick
is whatever score he has chosen.
Mostly, he chooses well. But in the second dance of the program,
Violet Caverns, he’s been hoist on the petard of friendship,
commissioning a score from The Bad Plus, a cooperative jazz ensemble comprised
of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and percussionist David
King. Iverson was Morris’s musical director from 1998 to 2002, during
which they worked together in harmony.
Yet right away, if you know Morris you know this notion of a timely commission
is a problem, not because of the potential of not liking it, but because
of the time constraint. Morris habitually steeps himself in a score until
he dreams it. When it’s hot off the keys, he’s denied this
essential luxury. Whether a long time spent with the score for this piece
would be productive is an open question.
second problem that suggests itself is the true inhospitality of jazz,
which is by nature improvisational, to choreography. Its innate inamicality
makes Beethoven, famously suggested by Balanchine to be impossible to
choreograph, sound like a welcome mat in contrast. For Morris, who is
so dependent on score for structure, the mating is particularly infelicitous.
The result, a 50-minute work on two themes—one of them a five note
motif on which quite obvious changes are rung, at an ever increasing volume
that makes ear plugs welcome–seems to last forever, with no inherent
structure until the very end. Then Morris combines the movement motifs
of the various episodic segments into one, and echoes the five notes of
the theme with five women carried across the stage in open, traveling
lifts. (This reminded me of his piece to Haydn called
A Lake, just as other passages reminded me of other Morris works,
though not a lot.)
Finally, with the light at the end of the tunnel in sight, the piece
acquires cumulative power, and the power of projection. It ends successfully.
But much of the time, as I watched dancers seated in despair in open second
position, or twirling under down-light, or rolling like prone dervishes,
or doing jazz class routines, I found myself wondering, “How would
I know this was Mark Morris?”
The answer came in the repeated motif of the lifts and in occasional hierarchical
stage pictures, and in the borrowings from yoga. You do, indeed, know
this dance to be Mark Morris, yet at uncharacteristically loose ends.
Violet Cavern is the only work of his that strikes me as deracinated,
and synthetic and, after a while, claustrophobic. That doesn’t mean
people don’t love it. Quite the opposite, actually. People find
Still, it was interesting to read a recent interview with Morris, by Gia
Kourlas, writing in Time Out. After discussing the collaboration
with Bad Plus, the choreographer went on to a consideration of Merce Cunningham—prompted,
one imagines, by that choreographer’s recent work with another current
band, Radiohead, a group of exponential popularity. Cunningham’s
method is of course the opposite of Morris’s. He not only doesn’t
work to music, he doesn’t even hear the music until a dance’s
first performance. Yet here was Morris, saying to Kourlas, “I want
to write a score for Merce. I’m a good musician, I think I could
write a beautiful or scary whatever piece of music for his company.”
Here is Mark Morris, in the midst of making Violet Cavern,
drawn in happy speculation to an experience where dance and music are
not one art, but two. Can you think of anything more telling?
First, Violet Cavern, which received its world
premiere at BAM. L to R Michelle Yard, Craig Biesecker, Julie Worden,
Amber Darragh. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
Second and Third: Dancers of the Mark Morris Dance Company in All Fours,
from a prior performance. Photos by Ken Fried.
Fourth: Dancers of the Mark Morris Dance Company in Violet Cavern.
Photo by Stephanie Berger.
Volume 2, Number 22
June 14, 2004
©2004 by Nancy Dalva
Autumn DanceView is out:
New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season
reviewed by Gia Kourlas
interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko
by Marc Haegeman
of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano)
and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)
The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan
Opera (by Elaine Machleder)
from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).
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