Mark Morris Dance Group
New York, New York
August 1 and 5, 2023
Program A: Numerator, A Wooden Tree, Italian Concerto, Grand Duo
August 9 and 12, 2023
Program B: Tempus Perfectum, All Fours, A minor Dance, Castor and Pollux
Mark Morris published Out Loud: A Memoir in 2019. Its appearance was duly noted and then the pandemic happened; suddenly, the only medium where dance of any kind had a chance of thriving was on digital film. However, re-reading Out Loud in 2023, I can see — no, hear — the magic in it. Wesley Stace, a novelist and songwriter, is also accorded a cover byline. Is it he who provided the touch that gives the finely balanced sentences and textured paragraphs and add-a-pearl storytelling the sound of the choreographer’s voice, as if the book is being spoken on the move, with pre-editing and prose music somehow, impossibly, built in? The language has the directness and the candor of Morris’s dances. We also find his let-it-all-hang-out account of Western dance history to be another flag that Morris is in the driver’s seat. And yet, the voice has a layer of resigned sobriety, of willfulness chastened.
The two programs by the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Joyce Theater this summer — each of which I saw twice — were marked by that quality, too. In a preview interview with Candice Thompson in The Fjord Review, Morris noted that a number of dancers in the company were new to the Joyce repertory they were performing. He also reminded readers that, for two years, “Covid erased everything. And it continues to,” as “coming back,” or getting into performance shape, was an arduous job on its own; and that the eight dances of the residency, four to each program, asked for quite a lot of dancing from the cast and offered quite a lot of choreographic information for the audience to digest.
Towards the end of his memoir, Morris writes about a sort of meltdown confrontation that he and his company suffered in 2016, when he was brought to the realization that — unlike the early days of his Group, when, as the proverbial king, he could fly off the handle with impunity or deliver himself of vulgar jokes in rehearsal — the current group of dancers are young enough to be his grandchildren, and they’re also the progeny of a culture that views the liberties of Morris’s youth as self-indulgent, if not offensive, license. As the nerve center of his company he has had to tone down his way of being in the world, and, at the Joyce, audiences who had been following Morris’s dancemaking for a long time could feel something of that suppression operating in the programs.
Yet, while the former jack-in-the-box moments of exultation and the darkest of the dark inward wildness were gone, the dancing was still miraculous in its drive and implicit stamina and meticulous in its phrasing. Audiences who were new to Morris’s work felt gratified; they were unlikely to have perceived the lowering of the flame that Morris veterans felt.
Happily, one element I always look forward to in Morris’s works remained the same: The uncanny illusion that the dancers are making it all up on the spot, spurred on by a personal response to the music and a communal sensitivity to one another’s rhythms and physical location. It’s an illusion that I, for one, associate with the legacy of Isadora Duncan. At the Joyce, it accounted for some thrillingly unpredictable dance imagery, even in the opening sections of that familiar caveman party ritual Grand Duo — a suite, set to Lou Harrison’s high-tension “Grand Duo for Violin and Piano,” for fourteen dancers, fingers insinuatingly paired and, climactically, bottoms innocently bared — which I’ve seen many times since its 1993 premiere. The connection to Isadora is clearly evident in the 2021 Covid-era beauty called Tempus Perfectum. A suite for two women in streaming dresses and two men in pants and tops running and lunging and addressing the universe in grand gestures as isolates who happened to share Brahms’s “Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39” (tenderly rendered on solo piano by Colin Fowler), Tempus Perfectum directly invoked Isadora, who had famously used some of those waltzes in a string of solos called The Many Faces of Love — and who insisted that although she danced alone on stage she had never performed a solo because, like her cherished Walt Whitman, she contained multitudes. (The title Tempus Perfectum refers to several ideas about time. In the online Fjord Review, Faye Arthurs gives a thorough explanation of it in the course of her vivid report on the Morris season.)
The Brahms work introduced the denser evening of choreography—and of music. It was followed by All Fours, for a dozen dancers, to the structural majesty and shrilling sound effects of Béla Bartók’s “String Quartet No. 4” (played with exacting precision by the Aeolus Quartet), a complex essay in dramatic contrasts — inky group against pale duets, heel-first steps (picking up folk elements in the score) followed by back falls, a starless landscape replaced by a blood-red sky. At both performances I saw, I was certain that something was happening here. I had no idea what, but it was both jangling with anxiety and profound.
A minor Dance, for a cast of six, was a world premiere. It was set to one of Morris’s J.S. Bach works (in this case, the “Partita No. 5 in A minor, BWV 827,” played by Fowler), and it gave us a vaudeville or country-fair Bach, with robust jumping and stolen lifts behind the tent and grapevine steps and swinging partnerships and canonic play for threesomes. The memorable image is of a human windmill or waterwheel, cannily churning its way from wing to wing, although only the top half was visible above the surface of the stage. How the bottom half was effected is among Morris’s most brilliant legerdemains.
Program B concluded with one of Morris’s earliest works: Castor and Pollux, for eight dancers, from 1980 (it was retired after one or two performances), set to a recording of most of a delightful piece of music with unusual-sounding tones (and, maybe, microtones). The score, also called “Castor and Pollux,” is by twentieth-century West Coast composer and inventor Harry Partch, who seems to have invoked the Dioscuri twins because the complexly structured music has two distinct halves. On the tape, Partch himself coaxes the notated score into music from the unique instruments that he conceived and constructed. In Pindar, Castor and Pollux are twin half-brothers: Their mother is the princess Leda, but they have different fathers — Castor’s is Leda’s mortal husband, Tyndareus, and Pollux’s is the immortal Zeus, who came to Leda in the form of a swan. (Their sister from the swan encounter is Helen of Troy.) Eventually, the twins are granted now-you-now-me immortality by Zeus (it’s complicated!) and take their places in the night sky as stars. One well-known later retelling of their story is Rameau’s opera, the original version of which contains a Ballet of Celestial Pleasures, led by Hebe, the Goddess of Youth, as part of a plot twist that I, for one, would argue pops up again in twentieth-century Broadway as the premise of Brigadoon.
Morris does not retell the story explicitly, yet the dance contains many lyric passages and quasi-narrative moments, and whether or not he intended references to both the ancient Greek accounts and to Rameau, they are glancingly evoked, as in a passage of men holding hands and walking in a line as if they had just stepped off a Greek water jar, with knees facing ahead of them and naked chests turned toward the audience. For me, though, the high point of Castor and Pollux — perhaps the high point of the Joyce residency — was the opening solo for the company’s Grace Kelly: Sumptuously ponytailed Karlie Budge, blessed with the brow of a goddess. Casually dressed, like a weekend hiker, she performed alone in bare space to gamelan-like chimes, and her loveliness was breathtaking, radiance personified. (Nick Kolin adapted the glamorous original lighting of William C. Yehle.) Nowhere else in the Joyce Theater repertory was a dancer bathed in quite this luminosity or so vulnerable to change, as if her body was living clay that the choreography experimentally pulled and pushed, emerging as pure art-in-process, with a muscular dynamism at the waist. The dance DNA of the young Mark Morris is in that choreography. Staged expertly by Morris’s early star Tina Fehlandt, the solo had a playfulness quite independent of Partch’s reinvention of Western music. Is the figure Leda? Helen? Hebe? All of them together? Or, perhaps, is she the embodied intersection of the mortal and the immortal, while coolly presenting herself as a young woman simply inscribing a dance on the air?
The first among equals, she was not alone, however. As in so much of Morris’s early work, all the dancing figures of Castor and Pollux maintained a limber, sensuous connection to sound — partnered by the music yet not corralled by it. This was in contrast to the way dancers sometimes appeared to be in the later Morrisiana they performed on Program A (such as the 2017 Numerator, to a Lou Harrison score, or the 2007 Italian Concerto, to J.S. Bach’s “Italian Concerto in F Major”), where the individuals gave an impression of being directed by the music in the sense of adhering to its counts, its numbers, over and above personal response to its expressive elements. They made me think of a line Morris uttered in a public forum, in 2016: “What I want is not anonymity but unanimity.” They provided that to him with professionalism and integrity; even so, the thorough domestication of the old feral spirit in his work led me to wonder if his current audiences can imagine what they’re missing.
Certainly, there is more to what makes music sacred than the way it embodies mathematical processes, yet is there ever any less to it? Morris’s newest dance, the A minor Dance to a Bach partita, introduces itself with a handful of its cast lying prone on the ground and one remaining who stands to clap her hands definitively on a specific count, which cues the others to exit and then to re-enter one by one. Counting dominates this dance in time and in space. I have no doubt that it also dominates Castor and Pollux, although a difference between them is that the older dance goes to great lengths to divert us from the math while the young dance makes counting a big part of the story.
Morris embeds little puzzles and magic tricks throughout his dances — to keep himself entertained? the audience awake? the dancers on their toes? In A Wooden Tree, to recorded songs by the late Ivor Cutler (a kind of Harry Partch of indie-folk singing), those who saw the dance in its first season, in 2012, will quickly spot the touches of Russia, such as the stepping phrase with arms akimbo, that carry memories of Mikhail Baryshnikov — his perfect dancer’s proportions elevated on a chair (an embodiment of the title’s “tree”), his greying hair tucked under his cap — in the “old man” role, a part taken at the Joyce by statuesque Billy Smith of the fly, blonde hair-tossings. The delightful nonsense lyrics concerning love, which serve as the toy engines of A Wooden Tree, also serve to divert us from the heartache in those songs and dances of evergreen, if idiosyncratic, charm, the syllables and rhymes of British English meted out with beatbox regularity, leading a listener to count everything in sight. If only Cutler (1923—2006) were alive, wearing the plus-fours for which he was famous, to take a bow hand in hand with Mark Morris, who, in the spirit of Cutler’s “Cock-a-Doodle Don’t” song, which provides a pendant to A Wooden Tree, would be emphatically not wearing them.
Mindy Aloff’s most recent book is Why Dance Matters, from Yale.