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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Synthesis and the Synthetic

All Fours and Violet Cavern
Mark Morris Dance Group
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
Brooklyn Academy of Music
June 8, 10-12, 2004

by Nancy Dalva
copyright © 2004 by Nancy  Dalva

America, 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 troupe.

“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 obliges.

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.

Morris 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.

The 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 it pleasurable.

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.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 22
June 14, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Nancy Dalva



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on June 14, 2004