Mark Morris Dance Group
McCarter Theater
Princeton, NJ

January 27, 2024
A Wooden Tree, Excursions, Candleflowerdance, Castor and Pollux

Jerry Hochman

Mark Morris Dance Group returned to Princeton’s McCarter Theater Saturday night, part of its annual cross-country touring season.

The evening was intended to provide a representative summary of Morris’s choreography, and the four dances presented did indeed span his choreographic career to date. But the program selections may have been mandated to some extent by the McCarter Theater performing space, which provides an amiable theater experience but may not have been able to handle the more expansive and complicated creations for which Morris has been celebrated. Accordingly the program turned out to be a mixed bag of relatively short dances that may not have been particularly representative or indicative of any evolution or progression of Morris’s choreographic style.

The evening’s four dances were presented in reverse chronological order (based on premiere date): A Wooden Tree, choreographed in 2012, was first; the earliest, Castor and Pollux, choreographed in 1980 – the year Morris founded his company – was last. As it turned out, these very different dances were the best pieces on the program, and the evening’s closer sent the audience home energized and smiling.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Castor and Pollux”
Photo by Danica Paulos

At the outset, I must admit that I have not had the opportunity to see the larger, evening-length dances for which Morris is famous, including those created for opera; my exposure to his choreography has been limited to dances he’s choreographed for American Ballet Theatre and that were presented at one or another Fall for Dance season or at a similar summer festival-type atmosphere. This isn’t by choice – his company’s engagements most often were either at an inconvenient time period or were not in Manhattan and therefore were more difficult to get to. Consequently, my point of view may be a product of limited exposure; so take what I write here with a grain or two of salt, or a spoonful of sugar.

I’ll address the dances presented in program order not just because it makes sense, but because doing so enables me to discuss the program’s outlier first.

A Wooden Tree is choreographed to 15 wee songs by Ivor Cutler (1923-2006), a Scottish poet/ songwriter, instrumentalist, humorist and wit. Born “Isadore Cutler” in a suburb of Glasgow, he began his public career in the late 1950s and 60s on BBC radio and, eventually, television. He was “discovered” by Paul McCartney, and played a role (Buster Bloodvessel) in the Beatles film, “Magical Mystery Tour.” He seems to have been some combination of keen observer of human nature and unrepentant curmudgeon.

Cutler’s songs – at least based on those used by Morris –are marvels of incisive brevity armed with eccentricity.  The “songs” are not so much songs as they’re ditties that could have been penned and/or sung in a pub while nursing a bottle of scotch – or, more likely, created in a lonely, barren room while nursing a bottle of scotch.  The songs last maybe a minute or two, maybe three at most (some only seconds), but many of them are quite clever. Some reflect general commentary on human oddities, some don’t seem humorous at all, and some bite. I won’t burden the reader with all of the 15 titles, but they range from “Here’s a Health for Simon” to “Trouble Trouble” to “I Got No Common Sense” to “A Wooden Tree” (ever see any tree that’s not wooden?) to “Cockadoodledon’t.”

More often than not Morris and his company bring the selected songs to life – abetted by the marvelously frumpy costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman that might have been purchased at the Scottish equivalent of Goodwill some 40-50 years ago.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “A Wooden Tree”
Photo by Elaine Mayson

The funniest (“The Market Place”) visualizes an “inexperienced” (read, lonely) man trying to figure out how to hold (as in put his arms around) a woman who herself may not have been very experienced, at some sort of colloquial “meet market” (or a “meat market,”  depending on one’s generation): a place where lonely people go to meet other people, but can’t find a way to get beyond “hello” and don’t know what to do with their hands.

By far the best of them were the skits that skirted the edge of wisdom: the penultimate two songs: “I Love You But I Don’t Know What I Mean” and “Beautiful Cosmos,” which together track the course of a relationship. Following the funny but dark humor in the former, in the latter Morris visualizes the “we don’t have anything to talk about to each other anymore” as a take of sorts on the sequence from the Orson Wells film “Citizen Caine” that evolves from mutual fascination and interest to two people (Caine and his wife) sitting around a breakfast table oblivious to each other. Here, Morris has the table as a relatively large rectangular dining-room-like table with the couple on opposite short sides, ignoring each other within their sardonically “beautiful cosmos.”

Morris seems to end the piece following this downer of a song when the 8-dancer cast take their bows – but suddenly the dance segues to the jubilant “Cockadoodledon’t,” and the dancers exit into the wings seeking no further audience recognition. Either “Cockadoodledon’t” didn’t fit anywhere else in the dance, or Morris was making a comment on Cutler’s humor, which disappears as soon as it registers.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “A Wooden Tree”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

As Cutler’s songs are largely without melody, Morris’s dances to them are without much choreography, distinctive or otherwise. But when the visualizations (primarily their staging) connect, they add value to Cutler’s words. And while some of Morris’s vision of the Cutler songs fall flat, overall it’s a dance worth seeing if only to be introduced to the oddity of Cutler’s songs and Morris’s equally odd and pithy rendering of them.

A bit of background before I discuss the program’s other dances.

The words most frequently used by others to describe Morris’s choreographic nature are simplicity and musicality. There’s no denying Morris’s stylistic simplicity, and that’s either good or not so good depending on the piece. But “musicality” is another matter.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Excursions”
Photo by Ani Collier

My definition of musicality apparently differs from that of others. To me, musicality in choreography doesn’t mean being tethered to the rhythm (and/ or melody) of the score; rather, the choreography is inspired by, and accurately reflects, the musical sense of the piece both at any given point in the composition’s time and in its entirety. Crafting a movement to each musical beat is being bound by the music, and to a large extent – based only on those admittedly few pieces of his that I’ve seen – that’s what I see in the Morris dances I’ve attended. [And slavishly following the music is a criticism I’ve expressed about a lot of the choreography I see, not just Morris’s.] One doesn’t “see the music” in a different way, as with, say, Balanchine, who uses the rhythms as a base but frees the dance from the music’s structural skeleton and lets both it and the dance breathe. Here, while the movement created is whatever Morris chooses, the progression of the dance is limited to what the music dictates. And in too many cases the movement itself is repetitious – the palette is relatively limited, and, as I’ve previously observed, one sequence seems to continue until Morris gets tired of it (or the musical tempo changes), and then the dance proceeds with a different set of repetitious movement. Too much of it looks like everything else.

This was the case with the other three dances on the program, which reflect the music but don’t enhance it, except for the evening’s final dance, which takes the piece beyond that and provides an independent something for the viewer to latch on to.

Excursions (2008), choreographed to Samuel Barber’s Excursions (Op. 20, IV, III, II, I), and Candleflowersdance, to Stravinsky’s Serenade in A exemplify Morris’s choreographic simplicity (too much of too many doing the same thing) and what I see as a somewhat pseudo musicality (again, as I must continue to emphasize, based on those Morris dances I’ve seen). They’re not the same, but they blend in the mind.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Excursions”
Photo by Nathaniel Brooks

I have little memory of Excursions. The composition was performed live and flawlessly on piano by the company’s Music Director, Colin Fowler (as was the subsequent piece), but, curiously, according to the program Morris inverts the order of Barber’s composition – going backward. And where Barber reportedly intended his piece to be excursions into American music idioms, Morris seems to take the title literally.

As the curtain opens, one sees a rectangular shape that spans much of the stage floor – this dance’s distinction from others (except it’s somewhat illusory, since what’s usually in a circle is here in a rectangular). Six of the company’s dancers venture within or around this patch of stage land. Every so often one or more of the dancers would stand, and face a certain direction as if he or she were looking back to a place coming from or forward to a place going to. But to the extent that’s some theme that the title reflects, it isn’t developed beyond those “ventures” around the stage’s rectangular core, and visualizations of trying to leave somewhere or being pulled away from or to somewhere. While there’s a decided sense of unity of the group, a camaraderie of sorts (particularly at the beginning, where the atmosphere is playful but exemplifies what I mean by his choreography being bound by the beats of the music), as it proceeds the dance takes on a darker aura, the dancers are in their individual spaces – like strangers on a cruise-ship voyage to somewhere, but there’s no there there.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Excursions”
Photo by Elaine Mayson

Candleflowerdance, which premiered in 2005, is dedicated to writer and feminist Susan Sontag, but I didn’t see any corresponding reference to her in the piece (not there has to be one). While it’s capably choreographed and, as was the case in all the program’s dances, capably executed by six of the company’s dancers, I saw nothing in it that left a lasting impression – except, for one very brief moment, there was a lift. Nothing to get excited about, this wasn’t an overhead lift and the male dancer wasn’t standing at the time, but at least for a second or two I saw a meaningful physical connection beyond what may have been required in A Wooden Tree. It was gasp-inducing, but it didn’t last long.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Castor and Pollux”
Photo by Danica Paulos

The evening’s concluding piece, Castor and Pollux, is a different matter. It too is abstract, but it has an independent, visually interesting pulse that Morris, while maintaining dependence on the composition’s rhythm, translates into kinetic energy that takes it beyond just echoing the score.

Although Castor and Pollux is very much consistent with its period and looks a little retro, it moves, and there’s some sense of community. And, most significantly, there’s variety here as well as a sense of novelty.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Castor and Pollux”
Photo by Danica Paulos

That sense of novelty is a creature of the score that Morris uses. Castor and Pollux is choreographed to an eponymous composition by Harry Starch (1901-1974), an American composer, music theorist, musical instrument creator, and iconoclast. As stated in his Wikipedia entry, Starch “…composed using scales of unequal intervals in just intonation, and was one of the first 20th century composers in the West to work systematically with microtonal scales…” He built his own instruments to accurately replicate the sounds, with, among others, an Adapted Viola (basically a standard viola with an elongated neck and a flattened bridge that’s held between the knees) and names such as the Chromelodeon, the Quadrangularis Reversum, the Zymo-Xyl, a Diamond Marimba, a Gourd Tree, Cloud-Chamber Bowls – among 50 such unique instruments. [I commend to the reader an article written in 2017 by Michael Schell in an article titled “Harry Partch: Celebrating a Musical Maverick,” written in connection with a celebration of Partch’s music, and a link therein that leads to another article written a year earlier by Maggie Molloy that provides a virtual tour (views only) of Starch’s instruments. Each is in the publication Second Inversion, which is available online.]

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Castor and Pollux”
Photo by Danica Paulos

As I watched Morris’s dance, I found myself sensing, at least initially, how it was strangely remindful of much choreography I’ve seen by Merce Cunningham (which also may not have been representative): there’s no connection between one dancer and another, the choreographic palette is limited, and to the extent they’re there (the men are bare-chested) the costumes enhance the pervading sense of simplicity and overall “sameness.” I’m aware of no connection between the two beyond whatever dance stew was brewing in New York at the time of its creation, and I had initially decided not to mention my mental meandering. But I found another connection as well. Created in 1952, Partch’s Castor and Pollux has an unusual, Asian-like collection of sounds. Partch has been described as having a fascination with oriental music (as the music was then labelled) – as I think was the case with Cunningham’s frequent collaborator, John Cage (as well as Cunningham himself). I decided to mention this because that connection (if anyone else senses it) might add another dimension to one’s consideration of the piece.

In any event, just as Partch goes in a different direction from Cage, Morris, at least here, goes in a different direction from Cunningham – to the dance’s distinct advantage, and the audience’s pleasure.

I haven’t mentioned the dancers in each piece because their roles, generally, are in a group setting, and however they’re subdivided into each dance, the fourteen company dancers acquitted themselves well. Without meaning to diminish the contributions of any of them, the standouts, to me, were company veterans Dallas McMurray and Billy Smith, and most significantly, Karlie Budge.

Although the program as a whole may have been difficult to connect to, it ended on a positive note. Where the Princeton audience was moderately pleased with A Wooden Tree, except for a few voices from the back of the orchestra it was less than enthusiastic for the second and third dance. But there was universal audience acclaim for Castor and Pollux. Sometimes audiences get it right.